Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills
edited by Mary Soames
Houghton Mifflin, 702 pp., $35.00
The British like to think of their country as the cradle of parliamentary democracy, but many years passed before it became democratic. The aristocracy ruled during the nineteenth century, and even in the twentieth century, when women at last won the vote, patrician government prevailed. There were gaps when Labour formed a government, but although some ministers came from the working class the essence of the British Establishment hardly changed. Until 1914 there was still such a thing as “Society”: when in the Twenties a rival, Café Society, appeared, the two had to overlap. The administrations after World War II of Churchill, Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Home remained patrician.
It was not until the 1960s that patrician culture began to crumble. During the regimes of Wilson and Heath British political culture began to shift, but it was not until the Thatcher years that the patricians were told by her to get off the stage. They sat disconsolate, biting their nails in the wings. Until then they had assumed that the fruits of office—the perks, the freebies, the official banquets, the parties confined to their own set—would still be theirs.
Winston Churchill was born a patrician, born indeed in Blenheim Palace, a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. What was he to do? He was the son of a younger son of the aristocracy. He had no money. While he worshiped his father, his father considered him a dunce; and after a meteoric rise in the cabinet the father failed in politics and then died, leaving his extravagant wife a widow unable to support her son. Winston chose a role that he fulfilled throughout his life. He was an adventurer and preferred the company of adventurers. Despite a lamentable school record at Harrow he passed quite high out of Sandhurst into a cavalry regiment and went straight off to Cuba, where Spain was trying to suppress a guerrilla movement. There he made some money filing reports to a newspaper.
Then he went to India with his regiment, covered a campaign on the northwest frontier, and made more money by writing a book about it. He then wangled—the word then used to describe backstairs influence—a transfer to the Sudan, where he charged with the cavalry in a battle against the Dervishes. His regiment forgave him because back in India he scored three out of the four goals winning the interregimental polo tournament. He chucked the army, went out to South Africa as a journalist to cover the war, was captured by the Boers, escaped, and became a national figure. The ten thousand pounds he made from his books and articles enabled him to stand for Parliament as a Conservative.
But the Conservatives advocated protectionism and tariffs. Churchill favored free trade. He “crossed the floor of the House” and joined the Liberals. When they won the 1905 election he was at once given a junior office, and in 1908 became the youngest cabinet minister in fifty years. Even after 1940 …