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 The Diaries and Letters of Lord Woolton, 1940-1945


Edited by Michael Kandiah & Judith Rowbotham


Records of Social and Economic History Series, vol. 61

Oxford: University Press for the British Academy, 2020

Hardcover. xxvii+324 p. ISBN 978-0197266847. £85


Reviewed by Antoine Capet

Université de Rouen



Anyone with an interest in Britain’s Home Front in the Second World War will have heard of the famous popular definition of ‘Woolton Pie’: ‘steak and kidney pie without the steak and kidney’. On a more serious level, the wartime Minister of Food (1940-1943), then Minister of Reconstruction (November 1943-1945), figures prominently in all books on the ‘People’s War’, not only for his action per se, but also because of his proximity to the Prime Minister, who recurs as a correspondent in the Diaries and Letters. Hence the editors’ remark in the excellent copious Overview which introduces the Diaries and Letters proper:

His comments on his relationship and dealings with Winston Churchill, and that of other prominent political figures both in and out of the Cabinet, particularly illuminate the complexity and problems of dealing with a high public profile figure like Winston Churchill, sure of his own importance and that of his own agenda in politics. [3]

It is well known that Lord Woolton (1883-1964) published a volume of memoirs (The Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. The Earl of Woolton. London: Cassell, 1959), but, basing themselves on family sources, the editors suggest that they were in fact watered down on the publisher’s insistence after the fracas of the wartime (1942-1945) Chief of the Imperial General Staff’s criticism of Churchill as a poor military leader a few months before (Bryant, Arthur [Editor]. (1) The Turn of the Tide, 1939-1943. (2) Triumph in the West, 1943-46. A Study based on the Diaries and Autobiographical Notes of Field Marshal The Viscount Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff. London: Collins, 1957-1959). So, The Diaries and Letters, which use the omitted passages, provide a welcome complement and corrective to the Memoirs.

Most Churchill biographies quote his warning to Lord Woolton on 14 July 1940:

Almost all the food faddists I have ever known, nut-eaters and the like, have died young after a long period of senile decay. The British soldier is far more likely to be right than the scientists. All he cares about is beef. […] The way to lose the war is to try to force the British public into a diet of milk, oatmeal, potatoes, etc., washed down on gala occasions with a little lime juice. (The Churchill Documents 15 : 514)

The Diaries and Letters go one better in that they give an extensive selection of their correspondence in July 1940. Churchill was dissatisfied on two main points. The first bore on the meat ration for the labouring population, with the Prime Minister asking ‘whether now that the Army is at home it can be made to eat a larger proportion of fresh meat so as to liberate more frozen meat for the benefit of the poorer class of heavy manual workers’ (12 July 1940). The other grumble was Woolton’s interference with the hotels and restaurants:

I see you have been making new regulations about food in hotels, curtailment of courses, avoidance of luxury dishes, etc. I do not remember that these were before Cabinet, and I take the opportunity of asking for some short explanation about the underlying principles of your policy. Is it worse for a country, for a man to eat a little of three or four courses of food, daintlily cooked out of scraps, or a good solid plate of roast beef? Is it more patriotic to avoid luxury by having the food, whatever it is, cooked badly? Is it wrong to eat up the luxury foods which are already in the country, or ought they to be wasted? This is just the sort of criticism which will be raised in Parliament (20 July 1940).

The last sentence was unashamedly disingenuous, since he must of course have been thinking primarily of his own ‘daintlily cooked’ meals, which he enjoyed so much, and probably only a tiny minority of hard-line Tory ‘Libertarians’ objected to this egalitarian measure. Likewise, he was guilty of terminological inexactitude when he told Woolton on 12 July that he was ‘disinterested’ as he ‘hardly ever’ visited a restaurant [67]. The editors comment that ‘Woolton demonstrated that he was capable of a robust response to such challenges in his reply’ – and in fact this applies to the whole of the volume. Another excellent example is provided by their exchange of letters on 15-26 February 1941 over a new policy introduced by the Ministry reported in The Times, which Churchill queried – Woolton finally got away with it, with an impeccably Burkean argument: ‘You state that the Order is illogical: I agree, but it is practical and based on the considered advice of the trade’ [165]. Lord Woolton was and remained primarily a successful businessman, of course.

It is therefore interesting that it should have been Woolton, not Churchill, who mentioned that his policy of curbing luxury consumption was important from ‘a political point of view’, i.e. for sustaining public morale: it is generally accepted that Churchill perfectly understood the mind of the ‘little man’ and shaped his home policy accordingly in the summer of 1940. The Prime Minister did not seem to have changed his views even by the end of 1941, since Woolton wrote in his diary on 28 November: ‘He’s not very good in his judgement on these home affairs: he doesn’t seem to understand that nobody else wants rationing any more than he does, but that there has to be rationing when there are short supplies’ [169].

On one point, however, his correspondence with the Minister of Food corroborates the common presentation of Churchill as a meddlesome Prime Minister, interfering with petty details which seemed to be below the dignity of his office. Thus we have this marvellous memorandum on rabbits dated 14 June 1941, at a time when Churchill knew that the Germans were about to invade the Soviet Union and one would have expected him to have more pressing proccupations than rabbit-breeding:

Have you done justice to rabbit production? Although rabbits are not by themselves nourishing, they are a pretty good mitigation of vegetarianism. They eat mainly grass and greenstuff, so what is the harm in encouraging their multiplication in captivity? [168]

If they show his occasional impatience with the Prime Minister’s constant interference, Woolton’s diary entries also show that he worked smoothly with his colleagues. Thus on 22 April 1942:

I went to a meeting with the Minister of Health, and the President of the Board of Education about nutrition. They are all very anxious – as I have been ever since I became Minister – about children being adequately nourished. […] The President told me how grateful he and his Department were for all the help they had received from my officials, and what a marvellous job had been done. [183]

Yet, the most fascinating diary entry of all, for any reader interested in Churchill’s social and economic pronouncements during the war, has to be that on the famous World broadcast of 21 March 1943, in which Churchill tried to cut the grass from under Beveridge’s feet – unsuccessfully as was shown by the results of the 1945 General Election:

[H]e began by saying that too many people were wasting time talking about plans for the future and that what was wanted was that everybody should concentrate on the job of winning the war. Having delivered himself of that he then proceeded to take up the whole of his 20 minutes with vague statements about the line he proposed to take in reconstructing the affairs of the nation.

It was a foolish broadcast. He said nothing specific, but his promises were rosy, although vague, but he has effectually damped down any public effort at planning for the post-war period. He made it quite clear that he intended to continue as PM and his mind was made up as to his policy. In view of the fact that, presumably with his approval, quite a number of members of his Government are hard at work on post-war planning it was difficult to reconcile his remarks with fact.

The editors remark that the entry constitutes ‘an irony given subsequent developments which saw Woolton become Minister of Reconstruction’ [225] – the topic of their next section.

In that section, probably the most important document is the first letter which Woolton sent to the Prime Minister as Minister of Reconstruction, on 10 November 1943 – a kind of statement of aims in which he balanced the desirable with the feasible after the return of peace:

The chief danger we have to face is excessive ambition. Immediate tasks will be so urgent and complex, the reaction from the stimulus of war so great, preoccupation with urgent private affairs so engrossing, that the country will have neither time nor energy for far-flung schemes of fundamental reconstruction. Expedition will be far more important than theoretical perfection.

As this seems to contradict his disappointment over Churchill’s ‘vague statements’ in his March speech, the editors argue that Woolton ‘needed to get Churchill on side, knowing that the Prime Minister was only a recent convert to prioritising the task of domestic reconstruction as well as overseeing developments on the international front’ [233]. Two days later, he confided his qualms over the task of Reconstruction to his diary in terms which remind us of the later controversy over the post-war progressives’ ‘New Jerusalem’: ‘Obviously people are expecting the new heaven and the new earth’ [260].

Clearly, then, Woolton’s vocabulary was now very similar to that of the anti-‘Beveridge’ and anti-Labour camp – the sort of vocabulary which lost Churchill the 1945 General Election, with an electorate that did expect ‘schemes of fundamental reconstruction’ like the nationalisations and the National Health Service.

The material on the war period proper ends with a revealing letter to his daughter, in which he explains in July 1945 his ‘relief at being free from responsibility from them [the issues of the day]’ – the exact opposite of Churchill, therefore. Anticipating Labour’s difficulties, he adds: ‘There is dissatisfaction everywhere and I doubt if anyone will keep much reputation’. This dyed-in-the-wool conservative (small ‘c’ until later in 1945) cannot refrain from ending on a snide remark on Labour:

For nothing could be further from the truth than that Labour is interested in social reform – they are going in for economic reform and I think must go in for nationalisation of something – coal, I suspect & it will take them a long time to get it worked out. I do not believe they really have a plan except in words. [264-265]

This shows how wrong a seasoned man of affairs like him could be when blinded by ideological preconceptions and prejudices: we now know that the Coal Industry Nationalisation Bill was published only five months later, in December.

Evidently, a review can only give a very incomplete sample of the wealth of information contained in Lord Woolton’s writings as reproduced in the volume, with their extensive footnotes (much more convenient than endnotes, of course) meticulously and most usefully giving information on all names, places and events quoted in the text.

Woolton’s writings are complemented by an Afterword: ‘Woolton after 1945’, in which the editors explain and document his early hesitations about his future after Labour’s victory. He at last formally joined the Conservative Party – in his 19 June 1945 election broadcast as Lord President of the Council in Churchill’s Caretaker Government of the spring of 1945 he had pretended that he had ‘no particular party ties’ [261] and indeed he was an old personal friend of Attlee’s [256-257, 273-274] – though exactly when and how curiously remains unclear. Remarkably for ‘an unorthodox Conservative’ (Glasgow Herald [271]), he became Chairman of the Conservative Party on 1 July 1946 [273]. He was particularly welcome by the defeated Conservatives because of his continued popularity in the country, acquired when he was Minister of Food, and he rejoined his post as Lord President of the Council in Churchill’s 1951 Government from October 1951 to November 1952, before ending his ministerial career as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster until December 1955 – only a few months after Churchill’s departure from Downing Street.

The text is complemented by an extensive Bibliography, as one would expect in this prestigious series, and by a very detailed Index which greatly facilitates searches for particular documents.

A review without any critical comments would be hightly suspect. Some readers will no doubt question the editors' choice of a cross between a chronological and a thematic approach. Each has its advantages and drawbacks: the thematic approach makes it possible to give the reply to a letter immediately below, but makes it more complicated to find a given document when one knows its date of writing; the purely chronological approach lifts that difficulty but at the cost of mixing all subjects and correspondents. No easy choice, then.

The proof-reading was of the highest order, a rare thing these days: very few slips were detected. BSA, the famous firm, is given as ‘[B]ritish (not Birmingham) [S]mall [A]rms’ [264]. Interestingly, the editors point out that Colonel John J. Llewellin’s surname was ‘frequently misspelt’ [232, N6], but they get it wrong ('Jeffreys') with another name which is ‘frequently misspelt’ – that of the historian Kevin Jefferys [287, 292]. The publishing house of Angus Calder's famous The People's War is spelt 'Panter' [289]. And throughout the book, Jose Harris becomes 'José' Harris.

One minor irritation about the Bibliography is that it does not always give the date of the first edition, which may be confusing for students and newcomers to the subject. Thus we have Paul Addison’s The Road to 1945 given as ‘Random House, 2011’ [240, N31; 288], or Norman Longmate’s How We Lived Then given as ‘Random House, 2010’ [293]. The standard work, Education in the Second World War : A Study in Policy and Administration, is attributed to ‘Gosden, Philip…2013’ – his full first names are Peter Henry John Heather, and the book was first published in 1976 [291].

The Diaries and Letters constitute a most welcome addition to the ample list of personal records from ministers and civil servants on Churchill’s wartime government made available to the general public since the end of the Second World War. Unreservedly recommended.



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