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Tuesday, 9 October, 2001, 13:26 GMT 14:26 UK
War cabinets of the past
War cabinets of the past
As Tony Blair convenes his war cabinet for the first time, BBC News Online looks back at war cabinets from previous conflicts.

The first modern war cabinet was set up in December 1916 by the new Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who had replaced the ineffectual Herbert Asquith as World War One dragged on.

Asquith had initiated a war committee at the outbreak of the war but it had become bloated and he had insisted on its decisions being ratified by the full cabinet.

Previous War Cabinets
World War One: 1914-1918
World War Two: 1940-1945
Falklands conflict: 1982
Gulf War: 1991

Lloyd George's war cabinet was smaller and thus able to assemble more quickly and make more rapid decisions.

He invited Arthur Henderson, leader of the increasingly influential Parliamentary Labour Party, and the South African leader General Jan Smuts, to replace Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, who had been lost at sea, and Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty, who was serving with the Army in France.

Slowly the war cabinet brought to bear its influence on key issues such as recruitment, shipping, food supply and the manufacturing of munitions.

Sub-committees even reviewed plans for military offensives, such as the Flanders campaign of June 1917.

Lloyd George and Churchill
Lloyd George (left, with Churchill) invented the 'war cabinet'
The war cabinet was dissolved in November 1919 but not before it had instructed the Army, Navy and RAF that they should not expect a "great war" in the next 10 years.

This advice was periodically renewed until 1932, when the rise of fascist parties in Italy and Germany persuaded the government that war was no longer out of the question.

In May 1938, as Germany threatened Czechoslovakia and war loomed, Neville Chamberlain's government decided to build Cabinet War Rooms in a supposedly bomb-proof basement in Whitehall, close to Downing Street and key ministries.

The complex involved a map room and was wired up by the BBC to enable broadcasting from there in times of war.

Chamberlain out, Churchill in

When war came in September 1939 Churchill was back as First Lord of the Admiralty, alongside Chamberlain, Secretary of State for War Leslie Hore-Belisha and several other key ministers.

Chamberlain, already undermined by his appeasement of Hitler before the war, was finally forced to resign in May 1940 after a series of disastrous campaigns to prevent the German takeover of Norway.

2001 war cabinet ministers
Tony Blair
John Prescott
Jack Straw
Gordon Brown
Geoff Hoon
David Blunkett
Robin Cook
Clare Short
Churchill replaced him and later recruited Clement Attlee, the Labour leader, Lord Beaverbrook, who became Minister of Aircraft Production, and Ernest Bevin, who became Minister of Labour and National Service.

Bevin's task was to recruit men and women, young and old, to fill in jobs in farms, factories and mines which had been left vacant by men who had joined the armed forces.

Hence the term Bevin Boys for 48,000 teenagers who spent much of the war in Britain's coal mines.

Eight hold Empire's fate

Churchill, conscious of the mistakes of the Great War, kept the war cabinet size to a manageable eight and combined his job as prime minister with that of minister of defence.

While always keen to listen to hear other's views and change his mind if so persuaded, Churchill's style of leadership was decisive and bold.

Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill was the perfect wartime leader
He led the war cabinet through the humiliating withdrawal from Dunkirk, the Battle of Britain and the initial reverses in North Africa.

Gradually, and boosted no doubt by the entry of the United States into the war in 1941, the war cabinet was able to turn the tide.

Armament production increased and, helped by breakthroughs such as the breaking of the Enigma code at Bletchley House, British forces took the initiative in the Atlantic, in North Africa and eventually in Normandy.

In November 1943 a Minister of Reconstruction, Lord Woolton, was appointed with the task of rebuilding Britain's blitzed cities.

The Cabinet War Rooms closed after Japan's surrender but were preserved for posterity and are visited by thousands of tourists every year.

Despite the Korean War and the Suez crisis, Prime Ministers Clement Attlee and Anthony Eden decided not to set up full war cabinets.

Thatcher resurrects war cabinet

But when the Falklands conflict broke out in April 1982 Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher decided, on advice from two predecessors, Harold Macmillan and James Callaghan, to form a war cabinet.

The decision to send a taskforce to win back the islands had been taken by the full cabinet on 2 April and the war cabinet did not meet until four days later.

She chose a small and loyal band - deputy prime minister Willie Whitelaw, Defence Secretary John Nott, Foreign Secretary Francis Pym, and Tory party chairman Cecil Parkinson.

Lord Lewin
Many politicians were in awe of Lord Lewin, who died in 1999.
The most glaring omission was Chancellor Sir Geoffrey Howe, largely because she did not want the operation compromised by financial restrictions.

Denys Blakeway, in his book on the Falklands conflict, said the personalities ranged from Pym, a "wet" who was considered an appeaser, to the staunchly Thatcherite Nott, whose "uneven temperament was generally considered unsuited for war".

But Mr Blakeway wrote: "Nevertheless the team worked well together, and their unity of purpose owed much to the presence of Admiral Sir Terence Lewin, the Chief of the Defence Staff."

'We need a clear objective'

It was Sir Terence who demanded, and was given, a clear objective - "to cause the withdrawal of the Argentinean forces from the Falklands and restore the British administration".

The politicians were reputedly in awe of Sir Terence because of his knowledge and insight.

One of the most crucial decisions taken, on 2 May, was the changing of the rules of engagement to allow the submarine HMS Conqueror to engage the Argentinian battleship General Belgrano outside of the exclusion zone.

John Nott
John Nott's temperament was "unsuited for war"
The decision, which later proved highly controversial as the Belgrano was reported to have been heading away from the Falklands, was taken without dissent.

By January 1991, when the next war cabinet was required for the Gulf War, Mrs Thatcher and the other Falklands veterans had shuffled off the political coil.

The only survivor was Sir Terence, by then Lord Lewin.

Echoes of 1991

The man in charge was John Major, assisted by the unflappable Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, and the experienced Defence Secretary Tom King.

Also co-opted was Energy Secretary John Wakeham, because of his reputation as a "fixer" and an expert at handling tricky situations.

He chaired the Gulf War information/propaganda committee, which was responsible for the "spin doctoring" (before the term had even been coined) of the war.

The situation today seems not dissimilar to the ways things were run in 1991.

Then, as now, the direction of the war was largely being directed by the US and President Bush's father, George Bush Sr. Britain, while not perhaps in the driving seat, seemed to be in the front passenger seat, navigating the way.

Key stories


War view



See also:

16 Sep 01 | Americas
Profile: Bush's fighting team
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