Sir John Anderson, 1939-40
National (with no party label), in Churchill’s wartime National Government
Sir John Anderson’s career was in many ways unique. He was educated at George Watson’s, in Edinburgh (one of two Watson’s boys to be home secretary in the 20th century), before winning a first in Maths and Natural Philosophy form Edinburgh University. He then spent a year at Leipzig University, as a chemist, before coming top in the civil service exam of 1905. He went from the Colonial Office as a trouble-shooter, to help establish Lloyd George’s medical insurance scheme in 1912. With the coming of war, he did not enlist, given the importance of his work in the government. As a young man of military age, a young woman presented him with a white feather. He thus enlisted under the Derby Scheme in 1915, but was never called up. His civil service career was impressive, including the wartime Ministry of Shipping, the new Ministry of Health and the Inland Revenue. He was in Ireland during the worst of the troubles and, after the signing of the Anglo-Irish treaty, he struck up a good working relationship with Michael Collins.
He then became permanent under-secretary in the Home Office, where he made a very great mark. He led the subcommittee on air raid precautions: the proposals made formed the basis of the air raid precautions he would do much to implement in 1938-39. Most importantly, he led the committee charged with maintaining essential supplies during the General Strike of 1926. As such, he attended the daily cabinet meetings for those nine days, famously falling out with Churchill, telling him to ‘stop talking nonsense’.
From 1931-37, he was the governor of Bengal, where he supressed terrorism, reformed its creaking and insolvent administration, instituted economic and social reforms (including compulsory primary education) and prepared the province for self-government in 1937. In 1938, Anderson was invited to take Ramsay MacDonald’s old Scottish Universities seat, which he did, standing as simply a National candidate without party label. By May, he was chairing the committee preparing for evacuation in the event of war; during the Sudeten crisis, he was in charge of air raid precautions in London and the South East. The following month he was appointed lord privy seal, with responsibility for civil defence: as such, he created the register of volunteers for civil defence, commissioned the Anderson Shelter and piloted the Civil Defence Bill through the Commons.
At the outbreak of war, he effectively swapped jobs with Sir Samuel Hoare, thus becoming home secretary. When Churchill became prime minister, he stayed on. Anderson had been unwilling to intern the majority of enemy aliens, but in the crisis of May and June 1940, he was forced, by pressure from the press and from the Conservative back benches, to give way. Privately, he thought it a witch-hunt. In the Blitz, he was attacked for his failure to have built large-scale deep shelters. Churchill agreed with him, but when Chamberlain went, decided to replace him with the more politically savvy Herbert Morrison, giving Anderson Chamberlain’s old position as lord president of the council. He would go on to be chancellor in 1943 (you can read about it here).
Anderson’s brief spell at the Home Office showed his strengths, notably his cool head and grasp of detail, but also his Achilles’ heel: he was always more civil servant than politician. Nonetheless, he was one of ten men since 1906 to have held the Home Office and the Treasury. Moreover, in the preparations made before the war, and before his time in the Home Office, he played a significant part in reading Britain for the terrible trials to come.