End of the Line

The Diaries and Letters of Harold Nicolson: Volume II: The War Years 1939-1945

edited by Nigel Nicolson
Atheneum, 512 pp., $8.50

Harold Nicolson
Harold Nicolson; drawing by David Levine

Harold Nicolson entered Parliament in 1935 as a National Labour candidate—one of the small and despised group who supported Ramsay MacDonald when he broke with the Labour Party and formed a “National” Government at the time of the slump four years earlier. After MacDonald’s death the group lost whatever meaning and influence it had ever possessed, and facing in 1944 the prospect of the General Election which would take place after the defeat of Germany, Nicolson asked himself what in fact he stood for in politics. “I am an Asquithian Liberal,” he answered. We all know what an Asquithian Liberal was in the First World War. What was he in the Second?

The answer shows how paradoxical politics is. An Asquithian Liberal in 1939 supported Churchill (the onetime follower of Lloyd George) against Chamberlain and the Tory Establishment. But he was still very much part of the upper-class Establishment. He found himself obsessed by Macbeth’s dilemma. What he would highly that he would holily. He saw the war as a defense of culture against barbarism, and not as a stark confrontation of military power. He wanted to defeat Hitler, but he was not prepared to wage war by totalitarian methods. He wanted to proclaim civilized war aims, to dissociate himself from any suggestion that this was a war to defend the Empire, and to reassure the working classes that at the end of this war there would be homes fit for heroes to live in and all sorts of other social benefits as well. The trouble was that Churchill shared none of these aspirations. The second volume of Nicolson’s diary, which covers the war years, shows the perplexities which a man of his temperament wrestled with.

When Churchill became Prime Minister he made Duff Cooper Minister of Information and asked Nicolson to take the number two job under him. During the first three years of its existence, the Ministry had the thankless task of processing news of almost unbroken Allied defeats, and it is not surprising that none of the ministers who answered for it was voted a success. Nicolson thought that the issue was whether the Ministry was prepared to be “caddish and ignorant enough to tell dynamic lies. At present it is too decent, educated and intellectual to imitate Goebbels…. I am prepared to see the old world of privilege disappear. But as it goes, it will carry with it the old standards of honor.” But much as intellectuals liked to say so, this was not the real issue. The issue was not whether gentlemen should run the Ministry, but whether it should be run by someone with drive and managerial skill. After eighteen months in office, Churchill decided to move Duff Cooper and replace him by Brendan Bracken, his ruthless friend and a natural successor to the buccaneering brigade of the old Lloyd George days. Labour got Nicolson’s post…

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