Waking the Bureaucracy, 1940

From Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom, by Thomas E. Ricks (Penguin, 2017), Kindle Loc. 1668-82:

Even as he was rallying the nation and trying to bolster the French, Churchill also was working full time on another major task: waking the soporific British bureaucracy. His work in this area, while if anything underappreciated, arguably helped the war effort as much as his oratory did. One of the biggest problems facing the British internally when he took office was the lethargy of the government during the first nine months of the war. “Chamberlain [had] presided efficiently over the Cabinet,” recalled Sir Ian Jacob. “Business was managed in an orderly fashion; but nothing much happened.” One surprising sign of this official indolence is that Britain should have been revving up its industries as it mobilized for a large war, yet unemployment increased from 1.2 million in September 1939 to 1.5 million in February 1940.

Churchill, upon becoming prime minister, reacted to the “sedate, sincere, but routine” attitude of the Chamberlain government by firing a daily barrage of personal memos that shook both military leaders and senior civilians. The memos often were tagged with a bright red label demanding “Action This Day,” a device Churchill first used at the height of the Dunkirk crisis, on May 29, 1940. His notes, wrote one aide, were “like the beam of a searchlight ceaselessly swinging round and penetrating into the remote recesses of the administration—so that everyone, however humble his rank or his function, felt that one day the beam might rest on him and light up what he was doing. In Whitehall the effect of this influence was immediate and dramatic. . . . A new sense of purpose and urgency was created as it came to be realized that a firm hand, guided by a strong will, was on the wheel.” As another wartime aide remembered it, “All round Whitehall people sat up and took notice.” They began working on nights and weekends—just as Churchill did.

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Filed under Britain, Germany, industry, labor, war

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