Winston Churchill
Winston Churchill; drawing by David Levine

When Winston Churchill’s florid speeches came over the wartime radio, the aged Hilaire Belloc, ever out-of-date, is alleged to have snarled: “Damned Yankee careerist.” Fair comment on 1901-14; irrelevant to Churchill’s valued efforts in 1939-45. Equally anachronistic are the “old warrior’s” admirers, who are now applauding this volume of his amusing son’s ill-organized biography, claiming to detect in the clever young politician the lineaments of the grand old man to come. “No one can doubt that he would withstand any trial, overcome any tribulation and develop in wisdom and fortitude until the hour and the man were matched…. He was no war-monger but he was in tune with great events, and it is wholly right that a man of spirit should relish his duty…. He was not to die. He was to live on for fifty more years, and because he lived, our country stayed free. Praise be.” No one writes like this nowadays, except when they are writing about Churchill. His style is catching.

Churchill, who started work as a war-correspondent, is nowadays less often described as a “war-monger” than as “the old warrior.” This is metaphor, imagery, personification. A journalist and orator, he came to personify War: he was its image. Randolph Churchill is, like his father, a journalist rich in superlatives. He writes of the depressing Lord Fisher:

Many people have considered that Fisher, though he never commanded a fleet in war, was the greatest sailor since Nelson. He was certainly one of the most exciting letter-writers of all time. His correspondence, carefully collected and brilliantly edited….

“Jackie” Fisher was a great sailor in the same sense that Churchill was a great warrior. Both were skilled with words, paperwork, intrigues. Randolph Churchill offers this gem from the exciting, brilliantly edited letters:

Dear Winston

St Lucia quite splendid! Dog eat dog! You are using niggers to fight niggers! For God’s sake don’t send British Bluejackets inland amongst sugar canes on this job!

At the time (1907) Fisher was First Sea Lord and Churchill was Under-Secretary at the Colonial Office. Much of their correspondence over the years concerned the naval build-up against Germany, and jobs for themselves and their friends. But the letter quoted above (its “patriotic” tone recurs frequently in this volume) is about strikes and riots among plantation-workers in the West Indies. Randolph Churchill tells us nothing about these rebellions, nothing about his father’s methods of repression, nothing about the rebels’ complaints. If we are to see Churchill in the context of his times, we must know what effect he had on the people he was paid to govern, both at home and abroad.

Churchill lent an air of nobility to ugly realities. He had come to Parliament, in 1901, as the war correspondent from South Africa, able to present the Boer War as a grand duel between blood-brothers. Some, he said in his maiden speech, were prepared to “stigmatise this as a war of greed…. This war from beginning to end has only been a war of duty.” The honorable enemy was especially praised for not arming the Negro population:

Even during the worst stresses of the war, it was regarded as a nameless crime on either side to set the black man on his fellow foe…. The Black Peril…is the one bond of union between the European races.

Some of his opponents were no less racist in their objections to the international capitalism which, they held, was the main cause of the war. A Radical MP asserted that the Government’s war policy in South Africa was decided

by bloodthirsty money-grubbers mostly of foreign extraction, without conscience, without country, without God.

Belloc laid down a similar line in a strident verse on the war, which Randolph Churchill quotes: it is in chivalrous ballad style, but with the names of Jewish magnates instead of warriors’:

The little mound where Eckstein stood
And gallant Albu fell,

And Oppenheim, half blind with blood,
Went fording through the rising flood

This kind of anti-capitalism is not dangerous to Churchills because its anti-Semitism misses the point. But Churchills will not publicly accept that a war in which they are engaged has any economic motivation; it must be for duty and honor. Yet Churchill was not naïve. In 1903 we find him commending Free Trade in order to ensure United States support for Britain in European wars.

As a Tory, in 1901, he called himself “a middle-thinker—compelled to serve in support of one disproportionate cause or the other.” He would act as forth-right advocate for a strong policy and then, if the votes were not forthcoming, he would let it drop. He knew that his rhetoric was a tool. A letter to his wife runs: “I must have something ready on the ‘wretched man I do not wish-by- any-words-of-mine-to-add-to-the-anguish-which-you-no-doubt-feel’ tack.” Sometimes he misled people by exaggerating his sentiments. He expressed deep distress after reading Seebohm Rowntree’s account of English poverty:


Although the British Empire is so large, they cannot find room to live in it…I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.

Five years later, a Liberal candidate now, in the slums of Manchester, he told his strange, epicene secretary, “Eddie” Marsh, about his feelings of compassion: “Fancy living in these streets—never seeing anything beautiful—never eating anything savoury….” At a Manchester charitable institution, he mused on the sad condition of the people, still suffering despite the advance of Science. The Providence of God, he said, would be more helpful than any Act of Parliament, “any mechanical state system”; the lifeboat service, a voluntary system, would be a possible model for social reformers.

A year later, a junior Minister in the Liberal Government, he boasts in a letter to his wife about that contemptible Empire, gloating over the acquisition of

150,000 more natives under our direct control…. There will not, I think, be any bloodshed…. Thus the Empire grows under Radical Administration!

This passage is marked “Secret.” In 1908, he is all for government intervention to assist the poor, to take the railways and canals into public ownership, to establish a national minimum wage. It was all talk. So it was when he alarmed George V with sharp remarks about the wealthy classes:

As for tramps and wastrels, there ought to be proper Labour Colonies where they could be…made to realise their duty to the State…. There are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.

The King complained that this sounded “very socialistic.” Churchill apologized, in the third person: he had not intended “to attack the wealthy classes, most of whom as Mr Ch knows well have done their duty in many ways.”

HE HAD MEANT no more harm to the aristocracy than he had done, the year before, when he urged his Prime Minister, Asquith, to abolish the House of Lords. He was always ready to accept aristocratic support: his kinsman, the Duke of Marlborough, wrote to the Daily Telegraph to complain of an unfavorable review of Churchill’s book, adding the thoughtful rider that the owner of the offending newspaper was Jewish. (The journal apologized, of course, and there was no need for the Duke to “offer Levi Lawson a public affront,” as he had promised Churchill he would do.)

Churchill himself was inclined to be friendly toward Jews (or “aliens,” as they were often called), especially when there were votes to be gained. In 1904, when standing in Manchester as a Liberal candidate, he had written to the Jewish leader, Nathan Laski, expressing opposition to proposed restrictions on immigration. (Such proposals are still a popular election tactic with Tories, when attempting to win over the British working class.) Churchill grandly described the proposals as “a loathsome system of police interference.” But seven years later, when Home Secretary, he went with armed policemen to arrest some foreignborn burglars who were alleged to be anarchists; the Horse Artillery were called out too, and a celebrated photograph of Churchill and his men at “the siege of Sidney Street” still survives the mockery of five decades. When the suspects’ house had burned down, two corpses were found. Churchill reported to the Prime Minister:

I thought it better to let the house burn down rather than spend good British lives in rescuing these ferocious rascals. I think I shall have to stiffen the administration of the Aliens Act a little….

These sentiments appealed to the King. It is amusing to read the correspondence between the Germanic figurehead and the half-American Minister about “outrages by foreigners,” and Churchill’s intention of empowering the police to “arrest any alien who has no visible means of earning a living.” Again, fortunately, it was all talk.

RANDOLPH CHURCHILL presents his father as a man of liberal achievement during his 1910-11 term of office as Home Secretary. He was evidently glad, when he conveniently could, to ameliorate the conditions of poorer subjects. In 1910, 450 coal miners were killed in two pit disasters, and a quarter of a million pounds were raised by public subscription; and Churchill, decently in tune with the times, introduced a bill to improve the safety regulations. Then he introduced more humane treatment of convicted persons, particularly those under twenty-one, remarking that vindictive treatment of minor offences “only falls on the sons of the working classes.” As Home Secretary, he also had the duty of deciding whether or not to reprieve men condemned to death. To emphasize the seriousness with which Churchill took this duty, his son reprints a lengthy memorandum which he wrote about a murder supposedly committed by John Dickman in 1910. Owen Edwards, writing in the London Tribune, recently identified this case, which Randolph Churchill has disguised for reasons of etiquette. Edwards has coldly summarized the Home Secretary’s main points: the convicted man could not prove his innocence; the evidence against him was wholly circumstantial; the Lords of Appeal (including the Lord Chief Justice, whom Churchill knew to be inefficient) had found against him. Having worked this out, Churchill went on holiday and Dickman was hanged.


This is a feeble instance of Churchill’s liberalism. Readers may even accept Owen Edwards’s sour conclusion that the case is an instance of Churchill’s tendency

to take up questions where he hoped to win popularity, until he became convinced that he lacked the justification to pursue them…. Politics was a game to Churchill. Like his friends, Lloyd George and F. E. Smith, he recognised that politics appeared to be divided between moderates and extremists, and that the quickest way for advancement was to alternate violence of language with readiness for compromise.

He was certainly skillful at compromise, at being obliging in a bluff, hearty way. He could smooth over scandals involving the dominant class. (Lord Fisher thought him something of a courtier, like his ancestors on the English side of his family.) There was the Marconi scandal of 1912-13, in which Liberal Ministers were accused of benefiting improperly from Government contracts with a private firm. Churchill, the former Tory, had kept on good terms with his old friends, like F. E. Smith and Edward Carson, and he persuaded them not to make party capital out of the affair; at the same time, he spoke with righteous indignation in defense of his Liberal colleagues. Two of them, named Isaacs and Samuel, suffered in their reputation; but a more aristocratic Liberal, the Master of Elibank, though deeply involved, has escaped almost scot-free, being in Bogota at the time—“on some business of Lord Cowdray,” as Randolph Churchill amusingly puts it. (The Cowdrays are still one of the most powerful families in Britain.)

Another well-managed intrigue of Churchill’s Liberal years was the royal marriage scandal of 1911. George V was alleged to have secretly married a commoner; and Churchill stage-managed a libel suit to stifle the rumor’s public expression, with the minimum embarrassment to His Majesty. Randolph Churchill remarks that this case afforded his father “an opportunity of cementing his relationship with the new King.” The rumor was oral, carried by working-class gossips, but Churchill found a journalist who had printed it—“a person not quite of the lowest class,” he confided. This man was imprisoned for twelve months. Randolph Churchill quotes letters from Churchill to the King (“my sincere and respectful congratulations to Your Majesty… Your Majesty’s royal dignity has been in no respect compromised or flouted”) but nothing from the King to Churchill. However, the Master of Elibank assured Churchill that the King had felt “real gratitude.”

THE YEARS (1910-14) between this King’s accession and the war with Germany are notorious for industrial strife in Britain; and Churchill, when Home Secretary, was responsible for suppressing the strikes and riots. What was the argument about? Who won? Churchill’s son is not concerned. He merely wants to refute, at length, the common belief that Churchill caused the militia to fire on coal-miners at Tonypandy in South Wales. He quotes The Times newspaper and King George’s telegram, both urging Churchill to take much stronger military action to “overawe the rioters.” The biographer proves, to his own satisfaction, that Churchill was more liberal than “public opinion”—which the royal telegram is alleged to represent.

Yet, after pages of this, he casually remarks that troops did in fact shoot down four men in another Welsh town, Llanelly, and suggests that Churchill’s enemies confused the two towns “because Tonypandy comes easier to the English tongue than Llanelly”! Whether the men were killed in one town or the other is not a fundamental issue. What Churchill was doing to whom and why—these are the questions to be asked. The King’s soldiers were being used against civilians who refused to work for their employers. Churchill was the responsible agent of his class’s decision. No doubt he was more liberal than the House of Guelph (George V had not yet become a Windsor) and manic Lord Northcliffe’s Times: that is why he was an effective agent. Probably he genuinely feared revolution. His son quotes a speech made by Churchill in 1911:

A continuance of the railway strike would have…hurled the whole of that great community into an abyss of horror which no man can dare to contemplate…. I do not know whether in the history of the world a similar catastrophe can be shown to have menaced an equally great community.

The self-confident biographer comments that this passage, “read in the cold light of historical analysis more than 50 years later, seems high flown and even absurdly exaggerated.” He excuses it by saying that it reflected “responsible opinion.”

But does it need excuses? Churchill’s fears of 1911 accord with Lenin’s hopes for Britain in 1913—when the menace of labor militancy coincided with Tory militancy in respect of northern Ireland, to terrify the Liberal Government. Noble landlords, Tory politicians, and army officers were seriously preparing for civil war. Churchill’s Liberal colleague, Lloyd George, publicly declared that, with labor “insurrection” and the Irish crisis together, “the situation will be the gravest with which any government has had to deal for centuries.” Lenin believed that the conflict over Ireland would persuade the British working class “to shake off its Philistine faith in the scrap of paper that is called English Law and Constitution, which the English aristocrats have torn up before the eyes of the whole people.” However, the war against Germany served to unite the classes of Great Britain. By 1917, an Italian Marxist, Antonio Gramsci, was arguing that the British “constitution” was not a mere scrap of paper, but an idealization of an ethical state, respected by the working class as well as the masters: few could bring themselves to work for its overthrow. “Fundamental laws of the State are not trampled on; arbitrary acts of the dominant class are not seen.” Not even the mutinous magnates of northern Ireland, not even the use of troops against strikers had been savage and arbitrary enough to provoke the expected revolution.

CHURCHILL’S ROLE was that of a sensible tactician who helped stop the dominant class, of which he was a member, from going too far. At the same time he prepared for the salutary foreign war. “The Fleet was Ready,” boasts his son, in lapidary capitals, as climax to this volume. In another connection, he calls his father “forthright, guileful and masterly.” Then, in his eagerness to pass moral judgments, he tries this:

It often happens that when necessity drives men’s minds it quickens them towards the justice of a cause which they have hitherto neglected. Such is politics, the cynic may exclaim, but such too is life itself.

He is trying to reconcile his admiration for his father’s flexibility with faith in the fixedness of his principles. He is worried by his father’s ambiguous position on Irish Home Rule. There is no need to make such heavy weather of it. When Carson and his Tory mob were fomenting civil war in northern Ireland, Churchill was the fiercest Liberal spokesman against them; he was also, having retained friendships in his old party, the smoothest mediator.

Surely there’s nothing derogatory in suggesting that Churchill’s actions were governed by the interests of himself and his class, a form of self-interest which he might reasonably consider enlightened? Surely too he must have been consciously aware that the threat of foreign war was a useful method of winning the loyalty of the working class for their employers. During the industrial strife of 1911, his Liberal colleague, Lloyd George, had finished a railway strike by warning the union leaders that the Germans might attack Britain—or so, says Randolph Churchill, it was “widely supposed at the time.” According to his father, though, the strikers surrendered because they had recognized the Government’s determination to use “the whole force of the State…, supported by the good sense and resolution of the whole mass of the people.” There is a third possible explanation for the strike’s collapse. The employers had, at least, consented to recognize the railway unions as official negotiators and, no doubt, that was the fact to which the railwaymen clung as they returned to work. It is the same now, when men try to weigh their motives for calling off a justified rebellion. Were they most influenced by unity against the foreigner, by fear of “the whole force of the State” and “public opinion,” or by sensible satisfaction with a partial achievement?

At any rate, Winston Churchill paid far more attention to the will of the common people than his biographer has ever done. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Churchill wrote to Lloyd George:

The Welsh miners who had gone on their holidays after denouncing the war are returning in full force tomorrow—having apparently satisfied themselves of the justice of the war—and will cut all the coal we need. This relieves a dangerous situation. I want you to send them a strong Welsh message about small nations etc.

Very Churchillian this. However you interpret the origins of a war—the Anglo-German arms race, the need to unite a divided nation-state, the rivalry of old and new imperialisms or whatever else—it is necessary in an ethical state like Britain to persuade the working population of the justice of the cause. Rhetoric must be prepared—“about small nations etc.” Churchill’s own mixed feelings about war are not strictly relevant. He had made a strong peace speech in 1908, blaming war-minded civilians and the “swells” for the long-lasting scare about Germany. He cried that the

working classes all over the world are recognising they have common interests…. Is democracy in the 20th century so powerless to effect its will? Are we all such puppets and marionettes to be wire-pulled against our interests into such hideous convulsions?… How many people do you suppose there are in Germany who really want to make a murdering attack on this country?

His rhetorical questions were answered in 1914, and he wrote to his wife:

Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse. I am interested, geared up and happy…. If war comes, we shall give them a good drubbing.

In the same letter he writes, more sensitively:

Is it not horrible to be built like that?… We all drift on in a kind of cataleptic trance. As if it was somebody else’s operation!

There is a kind of dialectic going on here. Perhaps this impressive man could, just possibly, have become a Marxist! He was certainly big enough to be aware of his status as a “puppet,” at the mercy of powerful forces, even while he was striving for mastery. These were bad years for Britain, nothing to be proud of. Churchill was one of the governors—and, no doubt, one of the best. But readers can make up their own picture of him by arranging quotations from this jumble of documents. Among the projects a scholar could use it for is a study of the relationship between class and race in the Anglo-American world hegemony.

This Issue

May 23, 1968