Norway Debate

Norway Debate

The Norway Debate, sometimes called the Narvik Debate, was a famous debate in the British House of Commons that took place in May 1940. It led to the formation of a widely-based National Government led by Winston Churchill which was to govern Britain until the end of World War II in Europe. The debate (on May 7 and 8), ostensibly on the progress of the Norwegian campaign, brought to a head widespread dissatisfaction with the adequacy of the existing government, led by Neville Chamberlain, to the challenges of waging war. In the debate Chamberlain's government was criticised not only by the Opposition but by respected members of his own party. The Opposition forced a vote – effectively a vote of confidence – which the government won with a greatly reduced majority. With over a quarter of Government MPs voting with the opposition or abstaining despite a three line whip it was clear that support for Chamberlain in his own party was crumbling; and (particularly after ill-judged remarks by him in the course of the debate) it was not possible for him to form a coalition with the opposition Labour and Liberal Parties. Two days later Chamberlain resigned and was succeeded as Prime Minister by Churchill.



In 1937 Chamberlain (previously Chancellor of the Exchequer) had 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 Liberal, National Labour, and Liberal National parties supporting the National Government. Faced with a resurgent and irredentist Germany, Chamberlain had attempted to avert war by a policy of appeasement, only abandoned after Germany became more overtly expansionist with the annexation of Czechoslovakia in March 1939. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this point a government supporter noted privately:

For two-and-a-half years, Neville Chamberlain has been Prime Minister of Great Britain. During this period Great Britain has suffered a series of diplomatic defeats and humiliations, culminating in the outbreak of European war. It is an unbroken record of failure in foreign policy, and there has been no outstanding success at home to offset the lack of it abroad... Yet it is probable that Neville Chamberlain still retains the confidence of the majority of his fellow country-men and that, if it were possible to obtain an accurate test of the feelings of the electorate, Chamberlain would be found the most popular statesman in the land.[1]

Once Germany had rapidly overrun Poland, there was a sustained period of military inactivity lasting until April 1940 when, days after Chamberlain had told a Conservative Party meeting that Hitler "had missed the bus",[2] Germany ended this "Phony 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 naval success at Narvik the subsequent Norwegian campaign had gone badly for Britain for very basic reasons.

The allied plan for bringing aid to Norway and countering the German aggression was hastily improvised, too frequently changed and came finally to grief because lack of material and above all of air power never made possible the development of the execution in terms of the conception. But in view of the difference in strength between the opposing forces it could under no circumstances have succeeded.[3]

Churchill had had a brilliant political career before World War I; first elected as a Conservative MP, he had become a Liberal Home Secretary and then First Lord of the Admiralty. During the war, as a result of 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 Lloyd George. Post-war he 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 the Second World War Chamberlain brought Churchill into government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill therefore had direct responsibility for the conduct of naval operations, and was required to defend the government of which he was a member, whatever his private views. Churchill had pressed the Cabinet to ignore Norwegian neutrality and mine Norwegian territorial waters, and to be prepared to seize Narvik, in both cases to disrupt the export of Swedish iron ore to Germany in winter months when the Baltic Sea was frozen. On behalf of the Admiralty, he had also advised that a major landing in Norway was not realistically within Germany's powers.[4]

The deeper background was the conduct of World War I, which offered parallels both politically and militarily.

  • Politically, there were two obvious precedents,
  1. the reconstruction of the Asquith government in 1915 as a wartime coalition still led by the peacetime leader of the majority party,
  2. (more dangerously for Chamberlain) Asquith's subsequent replacement in 1916 by Lloyd George of which Churchill later said:

Lloyd George seized the main power in the State and the headship of the Government. I think it was Carlyle who said of Oliver Cromwell: He coveted the place; perhaps the place was his. He imparted immediately a new surge of strength, of impulse, far stronger than anything that had been known up to that time, and extending over the whole field of war-time Government, every part of which was of equal interest to him.[5]

  • Militarily, speakers attempted to draw lessons from the experience (in many cases their experience) of the earlier war, explicitly mentioning the Antwerp expedition and the attempt to force the Dardanelles as relevant to the hazards which were run or should have been run in Norway. (Churchill had been associated with both, so in part this was a coded discussion of the soundness of Churchill's military judgement, on which opinion was sharply divided).

The debate was an adjournment debate, in which the motion technically is "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 usually not put to a vote. In this case the Opposition forced a vote to demonstrate their deep concern, and the vote was therefore effectively on a Motion of Confidence.

Unless otherwise referenced, quotes below are from the full text of the debate as given in Hansard, or the Official Report, Fifth Series, volume 360, columns 1073–196 and 1251–366. (see links at bottom of article).

May 7 - the debate begins

Chamberlain's opening speech

Chamberlain said that since his last (2 May) statement to the House on progress in Norway, 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, but 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 this 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!"[6] 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 their rapid reinforcement (unobstructed by expected demolitions on roads from the South) had prevented the forces landed 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.

I need hardly say that the Chiefs of Staff will retain their collective responsibility to the Cabinet as they do their individual responsibility to their Ministers, but (Churchill) will, under this arrangement, have a special responsibility for the supervision of military operations day by day

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 Norway 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".[7] He invited 'the co-operation of MPs from all parties' but was met with a cry of "No, no" from a Liberal MP. Chamberlain resumed, concluding

...the co-operation of Members of all parties, if not the co-operation of all Members of all parties, in a work which everyone recognises to be the prime need to-day. We do not set ourselves up as being infallible, as being above receiving help from others who are willing to help. Let us then before these trials come upon us put all our strength into the work of preparing for them, and we shall thus steadily increase our strength until we ourselves are able to deliver our blows where and when we will.

Opposition party leaders reply

Attlee (Labour)

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; that "at last, when the enemy had been locked behind his walls, he had now put out his head to be hit", which prompted a Chamberlain supporter to shout "It was very badly hit". Attlee then turned to the conduct of the campaign itself, concluding "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"

Sinclair (Liberal)

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; Sinclair however reported 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".[8]

Conservative backbench critics

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.

Keyes: "I speak for the fighting Navy"

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.[9] Harold Nicolson called it the most dramatic speech he had ever heard.[9] In full uniform with six rows of medals,[6] Keyes told the House

I came to the House of Commons to-day in uniform for the first time because I wish to speak for some officers and men of the fighting, sea-going Navy who are very unhappy. I want to make it perfectly clear that it is not their fault that the German warships and transports which forced their way into Norwegian ports by treachery were not followed in and destroyed as they were at Narvik. It is not the fault of those for whom I speak that the enemy have been left in undisputable possession of vulnerable ports and aerodromes for nearly a month, have been given time to pour in reinforcements by sea and air, to land tanks, heavy artillery and mechanised transport, and have been given time to develop the air offensive which has had such a devastating effect on the morale of Whitehall. If they had been more courageously and offensively employed they might have done much to prevent these unhappy happenings and much to influence unfriendly neutrals.

The House listened in breathless silence. Keyes finished by quoting Britain's greatest naval hero:

There are hundreds of young officers who are waiting eagerly to seize Warburton-Lee's torch, or emulate the deeds of Vian of the "Cossack." One hundred and forty years ago, Nelson said, "I am of the opinion that the boldest measures are the safest," and that still holds good to-day

When he sat down there was thunderous applause.[9]

Amery: "In the name of God - GO !"

The former Cabinet minister Leo Amery delivered a fierce attack on the Chamberlain government, criticising not merely the conduct of the Norway campaign, but 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.

I remember that many years ago in East Africa a young friend of mine went lion hunting. He secured a sleeping car on the railway and had it detached from the train at a siding near where he expected to find a certain man-eating lion. He went to rest and dream of hunting his lion in the morning. Unfortunately, the lion was out man-hunting that night. He clambered on to the rear of the car, scrabbled open the sliding door, and ate my friend. That is in brief the story of our initiative over Norway.

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:

Somehow or other we must get into the Government men who can match our enemies in fighting spirit, in daring, in resolution and in thirst for victory. Some 300 years ago, when this House found that its troops were being beaten again and again by the dash and daring of the Cavaliers, by Prince Rupert's Cavalry, Oliver Cromwell spoke to John Hampden. In one of his speeches he recounted what he said. It was this: I said to him, "Your troops are most of them old, decayed serving men and tapsters and such kind of fellows. …You must get men of a spirit that are likely to go as far as they[10] will go, or you will be beaten still." It may not be easy to find these men. They can be found only by trial and by ruthlessly discarding all who fail and have their failings discovered. We are fighting to-day for our life, for our liberty, for our all; we cannot go on being led as we are. I have quoted certain words of Oliver Cromwell. I will quote certain other words. I do it with great reluctance, because I am speaking of those who are old friends and associates of mine, but they are words which, I think, are applicable to the present situation. This is what 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"

Greenwood- We have had a serious reverse

Arthur Greenwood, Labour Deputy Leader spoke near the end of the first day's debate; he made use of Keyes' speech and of Amery's. He spoke first of what he saw as the true mood of the House

When the Prime Minister rose this afternoon he was greeted with ..synthetic cheers. I compared them with the cheers which greeted...(Keyes)... when he told the story which he said was a shocking story of ineptitude. That is really also the story of to-day's Debate. In a relatively short experience in this House, I have never known it, in spite of its cheers this afternoon, in graver mood. Its heart is troubled. It is anxious; it is more than anxious; it is apprehensive.

and then of what he thought the mood of the country to be

I ask hon. Members whether it is not a fact, within their knowledge, that increasing numbers of people in this country are becoming more and more disturbed with the direction of the war. Hon. Members on that side know that it is true. There is not a live Member of this House who has not had evidence within the last week-end that that is so. If a Member would rise and tell me that within the last 48 hours he had had no evidence that there was grave dissatisfaction in his constituency, or in his own particular circle, with the direction of the war, I should say that that Member was not fulfilling his public responsibilities

He contrasted Chamberlain's attitude with the mood of the Navy as reported by Keyes

(Chamberlain) to-day told us that south of Trondheim and north of Trondheim we had succeeded, by a masterly policy, in evacuation with no losses. Wars are not won on masterly evacuations.[11] In the first major effort of this war, whatever the reasons may be, justifiable or not, we have had to creep back to our lairs, which is against the spirit of the men who are over the waters, and ... who were prepared to fight

Britain had lost the confidence of the neutrals as well; for all these reasons the campaign was a serious reverse.

What is going to be the effect of this defeat, as the Prime Minister called it this afternoon, in Norway? ... We allowed Czecho-Slovakia to go down. Poland has gone down, Denmark has gone down, and Norway is more or less submerged. ... We have in fact by this unfortunate series of incidents forfeited the confidence of the remaining small neutral States in Europe. Why should they believe in us? ... Although the Prime Minister may say that it is not yet time to make a final assessment and that on the whole perhaps the advantage is with us, the fact is, as every hon. Member knows, that we have had a very serious reverse, not merely in the military sense, but in the hearts of the people of this country and in the hearts of the peoples of neutral countries

Criticism about the Norway campaign was bringing to a head a lot of other criticisms; a change of personnel was needed, and responsibility for bringing about that change lay with Government MPs.

All this dissatisfaction is now coming to a head because, through this Government, Britain's pride has been humbled in Norway, not through the defects of the fighting men, but through those who are responsible for the supreme direction of the war. ..(T)here is deep, bitter, growing dissatisfaction with the major direction of the war, and that responsibility lies with the Prime Minister and his colleagues, and with those supporters of the Government who, in spite of their better judgment, have from time to time applauded the Government's feeble efforts. ...It is perfectly clear that there must be an active, vigorous, imaginative direction of the war. Up to now, our record in this war, despite magnificent exploits which will remain in the annals of our history as long as there is a Britain, does not redound to the credit of the Government. I turn again to the words which I quoted at the beginning of my speech: Should there be confused councils, inefficiency and wavering, then other men must be called to take their place.[12] That is what we ask. The responsibility for any change lies, not with the minority. It lies with the majority whose responsibilities are, far and away, greater than ours.

May 8 - There will be a vote

Morrison 'We must divide the House'

At the start of the second day's debate, Herbert Morrison declared that the Labour Opposition wished to call for a vote of censure on the Government. He hardly minced matters:

The fact is that before the war and during the war, we have felt that the whole spirit, tempo and temperament of at least some Ministers have been wrong, inadequate and unsuitable. I am bound to refer, in particular, to the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer* and the Secretary of State for Air **. I cannot forget that in relation to the conduct of British foreign policy between 1931 and 1939, they were consistently and persistently wrong. I regard them as being, perhaps more than any other three men, responsible for the fact that we are involved in a war which the wise collective organisation of peace could have prevented, and just as they lacked courage, initiative, imagination, psychological understanding, liveliness and self-respect in the conduct of foreign policy, so I feel that the absence of those qualities has manifested itself in the actual conduct of the war. I have the genuine apprehension that if these men remain in office, we run grave risk of losing this war. That would be a fatal and a terrible thing for this country and, indeed, for the future of the human race. We are fighting for our lives. Humanity is struggling for its freedom. The issues of the war are too great for us to risk losing it by keeping in office men who have been there for a long time and have not shown themselves too well fitted for the task. There is much more than politics involved in this discussion. There is the war and all its consequences. Because we feel, in view of the gravity of the events which we are debating, that the House has a duty and that every Member has a responsibility to record his particular judgment upon them, we feel we must divide the House at the end of our Debate to-day."

Chamberlain 'I have friends in this House'

Chamberlain replied that he welcomed the chance for a division:

I do not seek to evade criticism, but I say this to my friends[13] in the House—and I have friends in the House. No Government can prosecute a war efficiently unless it has public and Parliamentary support. I accept the challenge. I welcome it indeed. At least we shall see who is with us and who is against us, and I call on my friends to support us in the Lobby to-night

This shocked many present, who regarded it as divisive to so explicitly rely on whipped support from his own party.[14] [15]Robert Boothby, a maverick Conservative MP and strong critic of Chamberlain, called out "Not I."

Lloyd George: "the worst strategic position in which this country has ever been placed"

The former Prime Minister David Lloyd George "The Man Who Won the [First World] War" now spoke. Members had to call upon him to speak up: he was now 77, and this was to be his last major contribution to debate in the House in which he had sat for 55 years. He told Members he was a Welshman and would warm up once he got going: he did.

He first attacked the conduct of the campaign

We did not take any measures that would guarantee success. This vital expedition, which would have made a vast difference to this country's strategical position, and an infinite difference to her prestige in the world, was made dependent upon this half-prepared, half-baked expeditionary force, without any combination at all between the Army and the Navy. There could not have been a more serious condemnation of the whole action of the Government in respect of Norway. ...The right hon. Gentleman spoke about the gallantry of our men, and we are all equally proud of them. It thrills us to read the stories. All the more shame that we should have made fools of them.

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; now they said, "It will be up to us to defend Democracy."

He criticised the rate of re-armament pre-war and to date.

Is there anyone in this House who will say that he is satisfied with the speed and efficiency of the preparations in any respect for air, for Army, yea, for Navy? Everybody is disappointed. Everybody knows that whatever was done was done half-heartedly, ineffectively, without drive and unintelligently. For three or four years I thought to myself that the facts with regard to Germany were exaggerated by the First Lord, because the then Prime Minister—not this Prime Minister—said that they were not true. The First Lord was right about it. Then came the war. The tempo was hardly speeded up. There was the same leisureliness and inefficiency. Will anybody tell me that he is satisfied with what we have done about aeroplanes, tanks, guns, especially anti-aircraft guns? Is anyone here satisfied with the steps we took to train an Army to use them? Nobody is satisfied. The whole world knows that. And here we are in the worst strategic position in which this country has ever been placed.

Churchill and Chamberlain intervene in Lloyd George's speech

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 hon. Gentleman must not allow himself to be converted into an air-raid shelter to keep the splinters from hitting his colleagues" and resumed:

But that is the position, and we must face it. I agree with the Prime Minister that we must face it as a people and not as a party, nor as a personal issue. The Prime Minister is not in a position to make his personality in this respect inseparable from the interests of the country.

This drew another intervention this time from Chamberlain "What is the meaning of that observation? I have never represented that my personality [Hon. Members: "You did!"] On the contrary, I took pains to say that personalities ought to have no place in these matters."

Lloyd George: Chamberlain "should sacrifice the seals of office"

The response to this intervention was a direct call for Chamberlain to resign

I was not here when the right hon. Gentleman made the observation, but he definitely appealed on a question which is a great national, Imperial and world issue. He said, "I have got my friends." It is not a question of who are the Prime Minister's friends. It is a far bigger issue. The Prime Minister must remember that he has met this formidable foe of ours in peace and in war. He has always been worsted. He is not in a position to appeal on the ground of friendship. He has appealed for sacrifice. The nation is prepared for every sacrifice so long as it has leadership, so long as the Government show clearly what they are aiming at and so long as the nation is confident that those who are leading it are doing their best. I say solemnly that the Prime Minister should give an example of sacrifice, because there is nothing which can contribute more to victory in this war than that he should sacrifice the seals of office.

Churchill winds up for the Government

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 a battleship 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."

A picture has been drawn of craven politicians hampering their admirals and generals in their bold designs. Others have suggested that I have personally overruled them, or that they themselves are inept and cowardly. Others again have suggested—for if truth is many-sided, mendacity is many-tongued—that I, personally, proposed to the Prime Minister and the War Cabinet more violent action and that they shrank from it and restrained it. There is not a word of truth in all that.

Responding to a comment by a Labour MP he said of him " he skulks in the corner"; this provoked uproar and repeated interventions, Churchill complaining "All day long we have had abuse, and now hon. Members opposite will not even listen".

Having defended the conduct of the naval operations in the Norway 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

Let me say that I am not advocating controversy. We have stood it for the last two days, and if I have broken out, it is not because I mean to seek a quarrel with hon. Gentlemen. On the contrary, I say, let pre-war feuds die; let personal quarrels be forgotten, and let us keep our hatreds for the common enemy. Let party interest be ignored, let all our energies be harnessed, let the whole ability and forces of the nation be hurled into the struggle, and let all the strong horses be pulling on the collar. At no time in the last war were we in greater peril than we are now, and I urge the House strongly to deal with these matters not in a precipitate vote, ill debated and on a widely discursive field, but in grave time and due time in accordance with the dignity of Parliament.

May 8 - Motion and Vote

After Churchill's speech the House divided. The motion was "That this House do now adjourn"[16] and constituted a vote of confidence.

Yes votes 281
No votes 200

The Government's notional majority was 213 but 39 Government supporters voted with the Opposition, and some others abstained. The Government still won the vote by 281 to 200, but the catastrophic fall in the Government's majority put great pressure on it. A Labour MP Josiah Wedgwood led the singing of Rule Britannia, joined by Conservative rebel Harold Macmillan of the Noes; this gave way to cries of 'Go!' as Chamberlain left the Chamber.[17]

May 9–10 A new Prime Minister emerges

May 9 Chamberlain must go

Chamberlain attempted next day (May 9) to form a National Coalition Government. In talks at Downing Street with Lord 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, 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.[18]

May 9 Halifax is a non-runner

After Attlee and Greenwood left Chamberlain asked who he should recommend to the King as his successor.

  • The version of events given by Churchill[19] 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 this); 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 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 [18]

    According to Halifax, Margesson then confirmed that feeling in the House of Commons had been veering to Churchill.

In a letter to Churchill written that night[20] 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"

May 10 Churchill becomes Prime Minister

On May 10 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 announced to the War Cabinet his intention to resign.[21] Chamberlain then (scarcely more than 3 days after he had opened the debate) went to the Palace to resign as Prime Minister (he continued to be the leader of the Conservative Party). He explained to the King why Halifax (whom the King thought the obvious candidate[22]) did not want to become Prime Minister. The King then sent for Churchill and asked him to form a new government; there was (according to Churchill) no stipulation that this be a coalition government.[23]

Churchill's first act was ask Attlee to come to the Admiralty to see him. Next he wrote to Chamberlain (who at 9 p.m. had announced the change of Prime Minister over the BBC) to thank him for his promised support. He then began to construct his coalition cabinet: before he went to bed (3 a.m. on May 11) he had established the composition of the new War Cabinet including the heads of the Service Ministries.[24]

May 13 The Coalition Government is endorsed

By May 13 most of the senior government posts were filled. On that day (which was Whit Monday), and therefore normally a Bank Holiday, but the Bank Holiday was cancelled by the incoming government, Churchill spoke to a specially convened sitting of the House of Commons. Speaking to them for the first time as Prime Minister, he began as follows:

I beg to move, That this House welcomes the formation of a Government representing the united and inflexible resolve of the nation to prosecute the war with Germany to a victorious conclusion.[25]

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.

"We have had unity by discussion, persuasion, good will and good sense"

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

When Hitler first came into power he sent to this country two or three of his friends who were very closely in touch with him to have a talk with British politicians. I had an interview with one of them, and I remember that in this conversation he said to me, "If there is a war with Germany what attitude will Labour adopt?" I said to him, "You will find that there will be more complete unity than in any war in which this country has ever engaged, and Labour will support the nation 100 per cent." I remember that when I said that to him he threw up his hands and said: "Don't you see that that unity which you have already secured in this country is that which the Fuhrer is imposing on us in Germany?" That is what is meant by the war for liberty. We have had unity by discussion, persuasion, good will and good sense, instead of unity by the concentration camp, the rubber truncheon and the executioner's block. ... (I)f Hitler imagined for a moment that the Debate and the Division last week showed any signs of lack of unity, let him contemplate what has happened in the last few days. I cannot imagine that at any period of our lives any of us has ever experienced or passed through days more dramatic than those since the House adjourned. In that time the tremendous moment of the war has come. The first death struggle has begun. While this has been going on we have established a new War Cabinet, and, as the Prime Minister said, with new Defence Ministers all at their posts, between Wednesday and Saturday night, within three days. I do not believe that there is any other form of government which could have carried through so great a change so smoothly and in so short a space of time. It convinces me that our form of Parliamentary government is the most civilised in peace and is the most formidable weapon of control in war. There is one other reflection which I would like to make. For many years I have been compelled to read Herr Hitler deriding and despising our Parliamentary government as decadent. Now we can give him the reply. The Nazi system has been in existence for about seven years, and when, like our Parliamentary system, it has weathered the storms for about 700 years, we can begin to argue which, when the great test comes, will have the bigger staying power[26]


Yes votes 381
No votes 0

Thus the wartime coalition was endorsed unanimously by the House, save for two tellers for the noes.[27]

Place in Parliamentary culture

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, remarking "Amery, by elevating patriotism above party,[28] showed the Back Bencher's power to help change the course of history".[29]



  1. ^ Arthur Marwick ; The Home Front - The British and the Second World War; Thames and Hudson, London, 1976 ISBN 0500 271143, p. 13. Marwick suggests the author to have been David Margesson, the Government Chief Whip.
  2. ^ The Times, 3 April 1940
  3. ^ Christopher Buckley; Norway, The Commandos, Dieppe; HMSO, London 1977 ISBN 0 11 772194 8, p25-26 (a paperback reissue of an official popular military history first issued in 1952)
  4. ^ F C Hinsley (et al), British Intelligence in the Second World War - Its Influence on Strategy and Operations - Volume 1; HMSO, London 1979, ISBN 0 11 630933 4* - pp. 119-125 covers intelligence and appreciation of German intentions and capabilities.
  5. ^ Churchill's speech of tribute on the death of Lloyd George : Hansard 28 March 1945 c 1379
  6. ^ a b Nicolson, p. 76.
  7. ^ Perhaps a deliberate echo of Alexander Pope Essay on Man" For forms of Government let fools contest" , perhaps an unfortunate one ; Pope continues "whate'er is best administered is best"
  8. ^ To avoid confusion or mis-editing : the account of the debate in Martin Gilbert's multi-volume biography of Churchill gives Sinclair a markedly different speech - which in fact is that made by Arthur Greenwood later in the debate
  9. ^ a b c Nicolson, p. 77.
  10. ^ Cromwell said 'gentlemen' not 'they' but meant the enemy, as did Amery
  11. ^ The same thought appears in Churchill's post-Dunkirk speech
  12. ^ Hansard 3 Sept 1939 c293 (Greenwood speech on announcement of war)
  13. ^ A 'friend' in this Parliamentary context is a member of the same party who will vote for you
  14. ^ Nicolson, p. 78.
  15. ^ and upon the Whips to enforce that support by applying their powers of persuasion: see John Profumo.
  16. ^ Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 360, col. 1365
  17. ^ Nicolson, p 79 - others say Harold Macmillan
  18. ^ a b quoted in Gilbert, op cit as from David Dilks (editor), The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan O.M 1938-45, London 1971, page 280 (diary entry for 9 May 1940), but in that case why the first person narrative?
  19. ^ Winston S Churchill, The Second World War, vol 1, London 1948, pages 523-4 as quoted in Gilbert, op cit.
  20. ^ cited in Gilbert op. cit. 'Letter of 9 May 1940, marked by Churchill 'Secret, for dinner, in a box'; Churchill papers 2/392'
  21. ^ War Cabinet No 119 of 1940, 4.30 p.m. (there were 3 War Cabinet meetings that day): Cabinet papers 65/7 cited in Gilbert op. cit.
  22. ^ John W. Wheeler-Bennett, King George VII, His Life and Reign, London 1958, pages 433-4
  23. ^ Winston S Churchill, The Second World War, volume 1, London 1948, page 525
  24. ^ Martin Gilbert, Finest Hour Winston S. Churchill 1939-1941, Book Club Associates, London 1983 [No ISBN given- originally published by Heinemann] p 299-314 covers events over these 3-4 days in considerably greater depth
  25. ^ Hansard,13 May 1940 column 1501
  26. ^ Hansard,13 May 1940 columns 1504-5
  27. ^ Hansard, House of Commons, 5th Series, vol. 360, col. 1525
  28. ^ praise perhaps more appropriate to the younger rebels, such as John Profumo -Amery made a telling speech, and did so out of patriotism, but if sufficiently Machiavellian he could have done so to advance his career: such is the nature of politics that the next day he seems to have been offered a Cabinet post in Chamberlain's abortive coalition
  29. ^ Betty Boothroyd, "Ferocious attack that spelt the end for Chamberlain and opened the way for Churchill", in "Official Report [HANSARD]", Centenary Volume, House of Commons 2009, p. 91.


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