Keith Hunt - The Life of Winston Churchill #2 - Page Two   Restitution of All Things

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The Life of Winston Churchill #2

Liberal Statesman


Liberal Statesman

     Churchill was now in the House of Commons. But what for?
Personal advancement, certainly. He thirsted for office, power,
and the chance to make history. Personal vindication, too: to
avenge his father's failure by becoming prime minister himself.
But were there not higher motives? Did not altruistic elements
coexist with his ambition, vanity, and lust for success? Did he
have a political philosophy? A book has been written on the
subject but leaves one little wiser. Churchill, then and always,
was a mass of contradictions.
     Churchill's experiences as a young warrior confirmed and
intensified his imperialism. The empire was a splendid thing:
enormous, world-embracing, seemingly all-powerful, certainly
gorgeously colorful, exciting, offering dazzling opportunities
for the progress and fulfillment of all races, provided the white
elite who ran it kept their nerve and self-confidence. Churchill
never lacked either and was anxious to display them in ruling an
empire whose outward show stood for everything he loved and
enjoyed. He also had certain gut instincts which fitted in well
at a time when the great-power "scramble for Africa" was at its
height. From the Sudan in 1899 he wrote to his mother: "I have a
keen aboriginal desire to kill some of these odious dervishes ...
I anticipate enjoying the exercise very much."

     At the same time Churchill had a warm and tender heart and a
perceptive insight into the darker side of power. He saw the
horror of empire as well as its splendor. He loved to be top dog.
But he felt for the underdog. The River War, for instance, was an
accurate and unflinching account of what he saw. He told his
cousin Ivor Guest: "I do not think the book will bring me many
friends, [but] in writing the great thing is to be honest." It
angered Kitchener and many others, another item in the growing
dossier of "Churchill's unreliability." The official reports
after Omdurman said the wounded Dervishes "received every
attention." In fact, he told his mother, their treatment was
disgraceful and most were just slaughtered. Kitchener, he told
her, was "a vulgar, common man - without much of the non-brutal
elements in his composition." This was toned down in the book.
Even so, he dealt with the question of the wounded Dervishes
honestly, and he added: "The stern and unpitying spirit of the
commander was communicated to his troops." In a sense, he
disapproved of the whole expedition insofar as it was a gigantic
reprisal for the murder of Gordon. He wrote: "It may be that the
gods forbad vengeance to man because they reserved for themselves
so intoxicating a drink. But the cup should not be drained to the
bottom. The dregs are often filthy tasting."
     It would be untrue to say that Churchill, as a young
politician and junior minister at the Colonial Office, kept an
eagle eye open for the blemishes of empire. But when they
attracted his attention he spoke out. He expressed his concern
for the six hundred Tibetans killed by the machine guns of the
Younghusband expedition to Lhasa, and for the twenty-five Zulu
rebels deported to Saint Helena and who, he said, were starving
there. He was quick to speak out for the Boers in giving a
generous peace and reconciliation. In his maiden speech in the
Commons, made immediately after taking the oath, his opening
words were: "If I were a Boer, I hope I should be fighting in the
field." This was not the least courageous of the five hundred
major speeches he was to make in the Commons over the next sixty
years. Nor did his eagerness to see war, and the relish he took
in it and in medal collecting, blind him to its inescapable
horrors, or prevent him from taking every opportunity to warn
fellow MPs about its nature. In another speech in his first year
in Parliament, he said that colonial wars were beastly, marked by
atrocities and senseless slaughters. But a European war would be
infinitely worse. He was "alarmed," he said, by the "composure,"
even "glibness," with which MPs and, worse, ministers talked of a
possible European war: "A European war cannot be anything but a
cruel, heart-rending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the
bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years,
the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of
peaceful industries, and the concentration, to one end, of every
vital energy in the community." He added: "Democracy is more
vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more
terrible than the wars of kings." These prophetic words were
spoken more than a dozen years before the catastrophe occurred in
1914. Churchill was never a warmonger as his enemies claimed. On
the contrary: he warned against it just as urgently as he warned
against unpreparedness for it-the two were indivisible. But
Churchill was sufficient of a realist to grasp that wars will
come, and that a victorious one, however dreadful, is preferable
to a lost one.
     In a broader sense, it is not easy to classify Churchill. He
had a historian's mind, eager to grapple with facts, actualities,
to answer the who, how, where, when questions, rather than a
philosopher's, mesmerized by abstractions with their whys and
wherefores. He was born a Tory and entered Parliament as one. But
he was unhappy on the Tories' benches. Salisbury, the man who had
destroyed his father, ceased to be leader in 1902 but, on
retiring, handed over to his nephew, A. J. Balfour, cool, aloof,
calculating rather than impulsive. Now, he had a philosopher's
mind, and Churchill found it uncongenial, although they moved in
similar circles and remained nominally friends until Balfour's
death in 1930. Churchill had no desire to serve under him.
Moreover, Balfour had got himself and his party into a muddle
over free trade; Joe Chamberlain, having split the old Liberal
Party over Ireland in 1886, now split the Tories over his plan to
reimpose protective tariffs. Churchill's constituency, Oldham,
was a free trade town and he was, too, both by interest and by
choice. Moreover, it was really a Liberal seat which he had won
by a fluke in the "khaki" landslide of 1900, and he was more
likely to hold it as a Liberal. The Tories had been predominant
for twenty years but the wind of change was now blowing and the
young man, sniffing it, wanted it to fill his sails. So he
"crossed over" in 1904 and fought and won Oldham as a Liberal in
the 1906 election, which returned a huge Liberal majority. This
caused fury among the right-thinking, and they added a hefty item
to Churchill's dossier of unreliability.
     He was not a party man. That was the truth. His loyalty
belonged to the national interest, and his own. At one time or
another he stood for Parliament under six labels: Conservative,
Liberal, Coalition, Constitutionalist, Unionist, and National
Conservative. This was partly due to his failure to find a safe
seat, or one he could hold. For his first quarter century in the
Commons he moved between Oldham (1900-1906), North-West
Manchester (1906-8), and Dundee, which he scrambled into in 1908
and finally lost in 1922, being then outside the Commons for over
a year. This dictated his return to the Conservatives. He said:
"Anyone can rat. It takes real skill to re-rat." His reward was
that he at last got a safe seat he could hold in all seasons,
Epping in Essex (later called Woodford), which he retained for
thirty-five years, once as a Constitutionalist, twice as a
Unionist, once as a National Conservative, and five times as a
simple Conservative, usually with enormous majorities. This safe
seat, near London, was of enormous benefit to his career. He
never had to worry about it.
     All the same, if Churchill was ever anything, he was a
Liberal (as well as a traditionalist and a small-c conservative).
There is a curious story about this, told to me by the Labour MP
"Curly" Mal lalieu in 1962, when Churchill was in his eighties,
though still an MP. There is, or was, a curious contraption
called the "House of Lords Lift" in which peers were elevated to'
the upper floor of Parliament, mere MPs being allowed to use it
only if injured or decrepit. Churchill had permanent permission,
and Curly had hurt himself playing football. One day when he got
in he found Churchill there. The old man glared and said: "Who
are you?" "I'm Bill Mallalieu, sir, MP for Huddersfield." "What
party?" "Labour, sir." "Ah. I'm a Liberal. Always have been." The
fiendish glee with which he made this remark was memorable.
Churchill's courage in crossing the floor made him a marked man,
and it was no surprise when the prime minister, Sir Henry
Campbell-Bannerman, made him undersecretary to the colonies in
1905. He was only thirty-one, and the office was important, for
his boss, Lord Elgin, was in the Lords, and Churchill had to do
all the Commons business covering the entire world himself, and
stand up to the Tory heavyweights, including Joe Chamberlain, the
first to make the colonies a fashionable, key job, the road to
the top. But standing up to this opposition from the front bench
was precisely what Churchill was good at, then and always. He was
fluent, resourceful, witty, and always well briefed. He enjoyed
himself on his feet and did his best to interest, even enthrall,
and always to entertain the House with his sallies and jokes, his
moments of indignation, real or simulated, his obvious love of
words and the relish with which he brought them out, not least
his huge pleasure in the rituals of the Commons and his reverence
for its traditions. Members always love those who love the House,
and Churchill plainly did.
     He also loved his job, with its telegrams, king's messengers
in uniform, red leather dispatch boxes, and important visitors,
black, yellow, and white, from all over the world. He was
certainly conspicuous. His name came up in a conversation between
Rudyard Kipling, the Orpheus of the empire, and one of its
greatest builders, Cecil Rhodes-how one wishes a transcript had
survived. Churchill paid an official visit to the East African
colonies in 1907, traveling with his devoted secretary "Eddie"
Marsh, a fixture in his official life for the next twenty-five
years. Going up from the coast to the Ugandan plateau by the new
railway, Churchill described it as "like travelling up the
beanstalk into fairyland." He made the most of the trip uphill by
standing on the cowcatcher of the engine as it puffed its way
through the jungle, a typical Churchill touch of vainglory which
duly made its way into the newspapers and caused tut-tut-ting. In
Uganda and Kenya he went on safari with Marsh and 350 porters. In
India he had stuck wild pig but could not afford big game. Now he
shot rhino, zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle, sending his trophies
back to London to be stuffed and mounted by the leading
taxidermist, Rowland Ward of Piccadilly. Oddly enough, through a
characteristic piece of Churchillian expediency, to avoid
criticism of misuse of public funds the trip had been paid for by
the Strand Magazine, and in return he wrote articles which,
extended to book form, became My African Journey. Like so many of
his activities, this combination of office with journalism would
be impossible now. Indeed, it raised eyebrows at the time.
Churchill had become a Privy Counsellor that year; and the next,
when H. H. Asquith succeeded "C-B" as prime minister, he was
brought into the cabinet. Going to the Colonial Office had been
Churchill's idea. He had originally been offered the plum job of
financial secretary to the treasury, but he had preferred to work
off his global ideas for the colonies (his book is full of
schemes for industrializing Africa and harnessing the Nile). Now,
however, he wanted to get his teeth into home politics and
eagerly accepted Asquith's invitation to succeed Lloyd George,
who was promoted to chancellor of the exchequer, as president of
the Board of Trade. It was dazzling to reach cabinet rank when
only thirty-four, and the post also brought the opportunity to
work with LG, with whom he forged a precarious friendship and a
more solid policy alliance to bring about an English version of
the "welfare state" Bismarck had introduced in Germany.
     Churchill realized he was about to embark on his first major
adventure in politics, and he wanted to put his private life in
order. He had already (January 2, 1906) paid his debt to his
family by publishing his magnificent Lord Randolph Churchill. As
his cousin Ivor Guest put it, "Few fathers had done less for
their sons. Few sons have done more for their fathers." Now he
wanted a family of his own. An eligible bachelor, he had
dutifully fallen in love with various girls, or thought he had,
and waltzed around Mayfair ballrooms. But he made little effort
to dance in step: not his line. "I trod on the Prince of Wales's
toe," he recorded complacently, "and heard him yelp." In August
1908 he proposed to Clementine Hozier, daughter of the late
Colonel Sir Henry Hozier, secretary of Lloyd's. Other girls had
set their caps at him, including Asquith's daughter Violet, and
some of them had substantial dots. But Clemmie suited him, and he
loved her. He always put happiness before money. Anyway, he never
had any doubt he could earn anything required. As he laid down,
"Income should be expanded to meet expenditure." They were
quickly married, at St. Margaret's, Westminster, Parliament's
parish church, in September, and the event was not allowed to
crowd out political activities. His best man was the fiercest of
England's political tribe, Lord Hugh Cecil, head of the Tory
"ultra" pressure group known as the Hughligans, and in the
vestry, while the registers were being signed, Churchill had time
to have a plotting whisper with LG. He used the honeymoon to
complete and dispatch to the printers his African book.
     Among all the twentieth-century ruling elites, the
Churchills must be judged to have had the most successful
marriage. It can be said with reasonable certitude that each was
totally faithful to the other. She devoted herself completely to
her remarkable husband, gave him much good (usually liberal)
advice, which was not always taken, comforted him in his many
career mishaps, and calmed him down when he was triumphant. "He
always insists I am by him," she said, "and then promptly forgets
my existence." True, but he never looked at another woman. They
had one son, Randolph, and four daughters, Diana, Sarah, Marigold
(who died in infancy), and Mary.
     The marital fidelity of the Churchills was a remarkable
fact, for the way the Commons works tends to erode vows on both
sides. Then, too, both parties had promiscuous mothers. Lady
Blanche Hozier, daughter of the Earl of Airlie, had many lovers
while her husband was still alive, nine at one time, it was said.
Clemmie was not Hozier's daughter but there is no certainty who
her father was. The most likely candidate was a flirtatious
cavalry officer, "Bay" Middleton, but another possibility was
Bertram Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale, Nancy Mitford's
grandfather. If so, it is curious to think that Mrs. Churchill
was her aunt. Jennie Churchill also had a number of lovers while
Lord Randolph was still alive, and they may even have included
Middleton. After Lord Randolph's death she had more, and then
made two marriages to younger men, before having one of her
falls, through wearing ultrahigh heels, which led to
mortification, amputation of her leg, and death (in 1921). There
is no doubt Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph. But it is a
remarkable fact that the children of such persistent adulteresses
should have made such a faithful couple. Given Churchill's
adventurous and reckless nature, and his appetite for sensation,
his fidelity is notable. It may be that he put all his energy
into his political life. Certainly, the marriage was spared many
of the irritating rubs of close proximity, for Churchill's
hours-up late arguing with colleagues, rising at lunchtime after
working in bed - meant that they led separate existences under
the same roof. they each had their own bedroom, right from the
start. Whatever the reason, fidelity was a godsend and an
important contributing factor to Churchill's success, for he was
saved all the worry and emotional storm which adultery provokes.
Churchill delighted in his marriage. He was a happy man. Against
this background, the years from 1908 proved the most fruitful of
his life in terms of the legislation, on the whole highly
successful, which he pushed through Parliament. These had the
overriding aim of helping the poor, the unemployed, and the
lower-paid working class. They included the Trade Boards Act
(1909), ending "sweated labour"; the establishment of labor
exchanges, to enable employees to fill jobs more quickly; the
first National Insurance Act (1911), to provide unemployment pay;
allowances for children to set against income tax; the Mines Act
(1911), which transformed conditions in the chronically unhappy
coal trade; and the Shops Act, which eventually helped shop
assistants by requiring a tea break and imposing early closing.
For the first time millions of lower-paid workers got a weekly
half holiday. Churchill supervised every detail of this extremely
complex program, defending it clause by clause in the Commons. He
was impelled by a genuine passion for the least fortunate members
of society, by a strong belief that society could be made both
humane and more efficient, and by his feeling that revolution, of
which there were rumblings all over the world at this time, could
only be averted by judicious reforms. Other countries were
introducing changes, but for a comparable achievement one has to
look to the domestic program of Woodrow Wilson in the United
States. Churchill's reforms were not his work alone. For the
first time he demonstrated his wonderful ability to galvanize
civil servants into furious activity and dramatic innovations,
and his equal skill in bringing to Whitehall brilliant outsiders,
such as William Beveridge, who ran the new labor exchanges and
who was later to produce the famous Beveridge Report (1943), the
plan on which Britain's welfare state was completed.
     Of course, the political giant behind the reforms was the
chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, who provided the
money. The introduction of old-age pensions in particular-which
struck people at the time as the most sensational of the
novelties-was his achievement. But Churchill supported him
passionately, having the case of Mrs. Everest in his mind: he was
always most strongly motivated by personal experience and
individual cases. The two worked together to bring the great
fleet of measures into harbor, wafted by the winds of their
oratory. As speakers they were very different. Churchill had
always prepared his set speeches carefully but not word for word.
In 1904, however, he had the horrible experience of "drying up"
in the Commons, when apparently in full flow. Thereafter he
learned everything by heart, rehearsed and timed himself, and
left nothing to chance. The Commons was, as a rule, a rapt
audience. Lloyd George was an inspirational leader on the Welsh
preacher model. He thought and spoke on his feet, and expected
the House to interrupt, to participate, and so to inspire
sallies, jokes, splashes of venom, and apothegms. He created
dramatic pauses and raised hubbubs. So his speaking rate was
slower measured in words delivered per minute-85 to Churchill's
111, with Gladstone's loo as the standard. But the excitement of
a Lloyd George speech was intense: you did not know what he would
say, and often it came as a surprise, even to the speaker. Later
in his life Churchill had to compete for the title of best
Commons orator with another Welshman, Aneurin Bevan, who like LG
often thought on his feet and was capable of devastating
impromptus, especially to interrupters. When I heard both men in
the 1950s, I rated Bevan more highly; and Sir Robert Boothby, who
was Churchill's parliamentary private secretary in the twenties,
close to Lloyd George, and a friend and drinking companion of
Bevan's, told me that LG was the best of the three at actually
moving the House and changing opinions. However, Churchill's
method was right for him and proved invaluable when, in due
course, he addressed vast audiences, worldwide, in solemn
settings. Moreover, while LG's speeches do not read particularly
well (nor do Bevan's), Churchill's orations, in print, usually
carry all the resonance of his voice with them: they are
magnificent prose, too.
     If Churchill and LG carried through a peaceful revolution
together, they were not equals. To LG, the radical by birth,
upbringing, race, emotional instinct, and voracious appetite for
change, to thrust down the mighty from their seats and exalt the
poor was his religion and his delight. Both he and Churchill
opposed the overambitious race with Germany to build the most
battleships. But only LG could, and did, say, "Dukes are more
expensive than Dreadnoughts, and often more dangerous!"
     Churchill was carried forward by intellectual conviction,
but his reverence for tradition acted as a brake, and LG
delighted in taunting him about his burden of "strawberry leaves
and Blenheim." In verting the usual hierarchy, he had a superior
social position to Churchill, which reinforced his seniority in
years, parliamentary experience, and honed political skills. So
he was by far the senior partner. Churchill saw it in even more
ignominious terms, especially in retrospect. In the mid-1920s,
when Churchill was riding high as chancellor of the exchequer,
and LG was out of office, for good as it turned out, Boothby
sought to heal the breach between the two men - they had scarcely
spoken since LG's government broke up in 1922 - by bringing the
Welshman to Churchill's private room at the Commons for a private
chat. After LG slipped away, Boothby went in and found Churchill
slumped in somber thought. "Well, how did it go?" "Oh, very well.
Within five minutes we were right back in our old relationship."
"What was that?" "Master and servant."
     At the time Churchill was too busy and excited to worry
about his subservience, for his horizons continued to expand. In
1910 he was promoted to home secretary. This gave added weight to
his role in the reform program but also allowed him to take
direct action. All his life he refused to be bound to a desk. He
insisted on seeing for himself. His imprisonment by the Boers had
given him a horror of confinement, so he visited prisons,
conferred with wardens, talked to prisoners alone - probably the
first home secretary to do so-and introduced administrative
changes, such as regular supplies of books and entertainment. He
began the process whereby the incarceration of children was
ended. His approach aroused irritation among the possessing
classes. Among his duties as home secretary was to send a daily
written report to the king when Parliament was sitting. Edward
VII had always enjoyed Churchill's jokes and often irreverent
approach to politics. George V who succeeded him in 1910, was
less sure of himself, had a much cruder sense of humor, and never
could quite see the point of Churchill. His racy letters often
appeared improper to the new king. In November 1911 the home
secretary wrote that his office was considering labor colonies to
deal with "tramps and wastrels." He added: "It must not, however,
be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of
the social scale." This produced an explosion of anger in the
king, who accused the author of "very socialistic views." But
Churchill, who was never content to be silent or inactive when
the opportunity to say or do something interesting presented
itself, got into trouble with the Socialists and their trade
union allies, too. A miners' strike at Tonypandy in the Rhondda
Valley of South Wales threatened to be beyond the powers of the
local police to control. Churchill ordered troops to the area as
a deterrent. This was a bold thing to do, bound to arouse
resentment among both militant trade unionists and Tory armchair
critics who disliked Churchillian "theatricals" as they called
them-two excellent reasons, in his view, why he should do it. In
fact it succeeded. The police were able to disperse the miners by
using their rolled-up mackintoshes-they did not even need to draw
their truncheons. The general on the spot, Neville Macready,
testified: "It was entirely due to Mr. Churchill's forethought
that bloodshed was avoided." But the accusation was made and
persisted-it still does among trade unionists-that Churchill
ordered the army to fire on the miners. "Remember Tonypandy" was
a bitter hustings cry used against Churchill at every election
     A more sensational episode followed. The British were used
to Irish "outrages" but in the years before the wars they had to
put up with a new menace, international terrorists termed
anarchists. The phenomenon is well treated in Conrad's novel
"Under Western Eyes."

     Among those ranked as anarchists were a gang of Latvian
immigrants under a man called Peter the Painter. They had already
killed three policemen while tunneling into a jeweler's shop, and
in January 1911 they were holed up in a house in Sidney Street in
London's East End. Churchill was advised to send a party of Scots
Guards from the Tower of London to help the police. He was
delighted to agree, and went also in person to see the "siege,"
dragging with him Eddie Marsh, the poetry lover and art collector
out of office hours, who was terrified. Photographers were
present and the newspapers showed the home secretary, apparently
directing police and soldiers, wearing a top hat and a beautiful
coat with fur lining and astrakhan collar. When a fire broke out
in the besieged house he certainly gave orders to the fire
brigade: "Let it burn." Two charred bodies were later found in
the ruins. Balfour, who never did anything active if he could
help it (except to play golf), asked maliciously in the Commons,
"I understand what the photographer was doing. But what was the
Right Honourable Gentleman doing?" This episode became another
weighty item in the anti-Churchill dossier, and the photo of
Churchill at the siege was reproduced thousands of times, and
still is. Hard to see, today, what he did wrong. A minister with
direct experience of how violent crime is handled is of more use
than one who merely reads reports. Besides, Churchill enjoyed it:
he assured his colleague Charles Masterman, "It was such fun."
When a fuss was made about corporal punishment of criminals, and
various specially designed rods and birches were produced,
Churchill and Eddie Marsh flogged themselves with them in the
home secretary's office. That was fun, too. As such it was in
contrast to his general experience as home secretary, which
he found grim: "Of all the offices I have held," he told a
newspaper in the midthirties, "this was the one I liked least."
He particularly disliked exercising the power of the home
secretary to confirm death sentences or commute them to life
imprisonment. Of the forty-three cases that came before him, he
commuted twenty-one. Churchill was never a supporter of abolition
of capital punishment. He thought long incarceration much more
horrible. But the night before a hanging he brooded on the
condemned man's fate: it was one of the very few worries which
ever robbed him of his sleep.
     All the same, Churchill later admitted that he relished the
years before the First World War more than any other period of
his career. We tend to think of them as a halcyon age of peace,
prosperity, and pleasure, the last in English history. In fact it
was an age of turbulence, and that is one reason Churchill
enjoyed it so much. It was not the world war which ended the
ancien regime but the years before it: the war was merely one of
the symptoms of the change. There is a remarkable book, The
Strange Death of Liberal England, in which George Dangerfield
presents the epoch in this light, a time of frenzy, extremism,
and incipient violence, banishing the old Liberal slogan of
"Peace, Prosperity and Reform," and with it all tranquillity in
public life. The unions were active as never before, taking full
advantage of their virtual immunity to actions for damages caused
by strikes, which the Liberals had unwisely conferred on them in
1906. The suffragettes were turning from protest to direct
action, were being brutally arrested, sent to prison, and
forcibly fed when they resorted to hunger strikes. In 1909, to
pay for the welfare state, Lloyd George introduced a budget which
taxed land values, so hitting hard the aristocracy, and increased
taxation generally.

     Breaking a long tradition under which the House of Lords
automatically passed finance bills agreed by the Commons, the
Lords rejected it, the Tories using their overwhelming built-in
majority there. Asquith had either to withdraw or tone down the
budget, to create peers to enable it to be passed-which King
George initially declined to do-or to go to the country. But two
elections in 1910 failed to decide the matter, though they robbed
the Liberals of their huge majority over all parties, forcing
Asquith to rely on Irish support in order to go on governing.
That in turn forced him to buy the Irish MPs by giving them a
Home Rule bill, which further angered the Tories and their Ulster
Protestant allies, who threatened violence and began to arm
     Churchill, by nature an activist and a partisan, if not
exactly belligerent, was in the thick of all those struggles.
Trade unionists now hated him. Suffragettes, who made him a
particular target, tried to break up his meetings and
occasionally assaulted him. He was made the victim of a rare
physical assault in the Commons. On November 13, 1912, during an
Ulster debate, the ultra-Tories shouted "Rats!" to him and
Colonel Seely, sitting on the front bench. Churchill
characteristically responded by waving a handkerchief, a gesture
of irony interpreted as provocation, and Ronald McNeill, an
Ulster MP, responded in turn by seizing the Speaker's
leather-bound copy of Standing Orders, hurling it in a vast
parabola through the tense air, and striking Churchill on the
head. He responded by quoting Hazlitt: "I do not mind a physical
blow. It is hostile ideas which hurt me." Later he insisted on
fulfilling a speaking engagement in Belfast's Unionist Hall,
despite threats to his life. This was one of many instances at
the time which testify to his lack of physical fear.

     In this sense there has never been a more courageous
politician. He courted danger, given the chance.
     Not that Churchill enjoyed divisions in society - quite the
contrary. He found the center attractive. He and Lloyd George
discussed the possibility of a new party of all talents. In his
case it was made more attractive by his friendship with the Tory
MP F. E. Smith. Son of a former mayor of Birkenhead and
prizewinning lawyer from Wadham College, Oxford, "F. E.," as he
was known, had made in February 1906 what is rated the greatest
of all maiden speeches and had almost immediately taken a
prominent place on the Conservative front bench. He and Churchill
soon became fast friends. Smith made a tremendous income at the
bar and helped Churchill in a libel action. He was witty,
abrasive, profane, a great hater and enthusiast, the only person
Churchill admitted had a finer brain than himself. They argued,
drank, and joked together into the night, and Clemmie believed he
was the worst possible influence on her husband, more even than
Lloyd George, who at any rate had the (to her) merit of going to
bed at nine if he could. Smith was the only friend with whom
Churchill watched his words, for he feared that Smith, who was
the master of insults, might if they quarreled use expressions
which would end their friendship forever. To Clemmie's horror he
was asked to be Randolph's godfather, and agreed. Churchill
thought him a natural for a center party of brilliant
individuals. This friendship continued, even intensified, over
the budget crisis, the House of Lords crisis, and the Ulster
crisis. The only thing they agreed about was denying votes to
women, for Smith, who adored them-"he spared no man with his wit,
and all women"-and would not allow his daughters to go to
boarding school or university, thought participation in public
life would destroy femininity. The two men were famous for
laughing loud and long together. Unable to dominate as they
wished the old-style Literary Club, or "the Club," originally
founded by Dr. Johnson, they created a rival, "the Other Club,"
which they stocked with their friends, and which became even more
famous for scintillating talk and vitality, if not for wisdom. It
was a bridge between two hostile worlds, as Tories shut their
doors in Liberal faces. It was one of the rare times in English
history when members of the two parties did not meet at dinner or
in ballrooms. New York and Paris were used to bitter political
schisms, but London had always put social relations before party,
and the bitterness was painful as well as novel. Smith joked: "We
have got the best of the bargain. We are sought out by duchesses.
Countesses give dinner parties for us. What do you Liberals get?
The Society of Knights' Ladies."
     Actually there is no evidence Churchill was ever excluded by
the Mayfair hostesses as a result of his views, or for any other
reason. They were delighted to have him, then as always. In any
case he had resources of his own. He and Clemmie had always
contrived to be "well-mounted," a horsey term which he used to
signify "able to maintain a comfortable existence in society." As
he once put it: "All my life, I have earned my own living, so
that I have always had a bottle of champagne for myself and
another for a friend." In 1911 Asquith, hearing the rumbles of
war grow louder, transferred Churchill to the Admiralty. As first
lord, he became "tenant of the grandest tied cottage in
Whitehall," as he put it. At Admiralty House his retinue of
indoor servants expanded from seven to twelve, and Clemmie was
able to preside over sumptuous dinner parties and receptions. Nor
was this all. He had the use of the Admiralty yacht, the
Enchantress, at four thousand tons one of the largest afloat,
with a crew of 196. He delighted in this splendid vessel: "It was
the finest toy I ever had in my life." Luxury yachting under blue
skies was the greatest pleasure of the prewar ruling class. He
provided it in regular spring and summer cruises on the grand
scale for his social and political friends, from the Asquiths
down. There are rapturous accounts of these occasions. There was
nothing frivolous about them, however. The Royal Navy was the
most complex and widely spread fighting machine on earth. It was
"the Senior Service," dogmatically proud of its ways and
determined not to change them. The senior admirals regarded
Churchill with horror. Junior officers, petty officers, and
ratings saw him as a hero, especially after he improved their pay
and conditions. There were many hundreds of naval establishments
and bases in the British Isles and the Mediterranean alone.
     Thanks to Enchantress, Churchill visited every one of them,
spending eighteen months on board her during his three peacetime
years as first lord. He looked into everything and everyone. He
often worked eighteen hours a day, and absorbed the new
technology of naval warfare with impressive speed. It was exactly
the kind of existence he loved. Against frenzied opposition he
created a naval staff. He began the historic switch from coal to
oil, and in the process laid down a new class, the Queen
Elizabeth, of huge, oil-burning battleships. He created the naval
air service, and begged his ship architects to design him
aircraft carriers. He learned to fly himself and did so, with
reckless delight, as often as he could, until Clemmie, on her
knees, persuaded him tog've it up. He recognized no limitations
to his activities and took the government, and Britain, into the
oil industry by investing in Persia and creating the great
Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP). This proved to be, over the
decades, an even better investment than Disraeli's purchase of
the Suez Canal.
     Surveying the world scene from his coign of vantage at the
Admiralty, now, thanks to his efforts, in direct wireless
communication with every part of the world, Churchill sensed that
Britain was heading for a war with Germany. While still home
secretary he judged it his duty, as the minister responsible for
international security, to attend German army maneuvers. The
kaiser, who was part English and spoke the language fluently,
made a fuss of him and Churchill got to know him quite well,
insofar as anyone did. For the kaiser, as Churchill made clear in
an essay in Great Contemporaries (1937), was an enigma and a mass
of contradictions. It was unclear whether he was a puppet or an
autocrat. What was undeniable, as Churchill saw for himself, was
that Germany possessed the best professional army in the world.
He attended French maneuvers, too, and, despite his lifelong
Francophilia, he could see there was no comparison. Moreover,
Germany was now easily the largest industrial power in Europe
and, with a large and rapidly growing population, capable of
expanding her war machine dramatically. On his return from German
maneuvers, Churchill said, "I can only thank God that there is a
sea between England and Germany."
     The sea was defended by the Royal Navy, the largest in the
world, though no longer up to the "two-power standard," able to
take on and defeat the two next largest navies in the world. That
raised the question: why were the Germans, with an army capable
of domination of all Europe, determined to match, or at least
challenge, Britain at sea? Their navy could only be aimed at
Britain and the global command of the sea. The Germans began
building their High Seas Fleet, as they called it, in the late
1880s, and continued to increase the rate of ship construction,
especially of armored, biggun battleships, over the next twenty
years. It was this plainly antiBritish construction program which
turned public opinion, hitherto pro-German, if anything, against
what were now referred to as "the Huns." (Churchill preferred the
French term of abuse, boche.) When Churchill took over the
Admiralty, the policy was then to maintain a 60 percent
superiority over Germany in modern battleships. But this was
upset by the German Naval Law of 1912 which increased their
battleship construction rate by half again. Churchill responded
with the Queen Elizabeth class, the largest warships ever made at
27,500 tons and eight fifteen-inch guns each, oil burning and
able to maintain high speeds. A disgusted Lloyd George complained
that Churchill had lost all interest in social reform "and now
talks about nothing but boilers."
     Churchill was also concerned by the German decision to build
large numbers of U-boats (as they called them). What were they
for? The answer was unmistakable. Britain had the largest
merchant navy in the world and imported a greater percentage of
her food than any other great power. The German U-boat was a
potential war-winning weapon which could starve Britain to death.
Churchill began to hate the U-boat passionately, and near the end
of his life he declared that in both world wars the submarine
threat had worried him more than any other. The only answer was
to build large numbers of U-boat destroyers, or destroyers for
short, very fast and equipped with a new weapon, the depth
charge. This he did. But at every step in his policies, he was
opposed by elderly admirals, of whom there were a large number
occupying key positions. He spent as much time battling with them
as he did at the actual work of modernizing the navy.
     It says a lot for Churchill's overwhelming energy that while
performing all his myriad tasks at the Admiralty and the naval
bases, he did many other things, too. He stood by Lloyd George in
his many troubles-accusations of corruption over Marconi shares,
and of fornication and adultery - and backed Asquith to the hilt
over Home Rule. There was much gunrunning among both Protestants
and Catholics and threats by Ulster Protestant army officers,
many ofwhom held senior posts, to resign their commissions rather
than participate in coercing Ulster to accept Home Rule. He made
two hazardous visits to Ulster, on one taking Clemmie, to put the
government's case, and he was prepared to use force to ensure
that Ulster abide by the Home Rule compromise. It is worth noting
that in the years 1911-14, Churchill felt bound to pursue
policies which antagonized most of the senior admirals and many
of the senior generals. This helps to explain his troubles during
the war. Indeed, though he was not at all an extremist, his
actions often looked extreme. His nature was such that, once a
policy was finally determined in the cabinet, he pushed it with
enthusiasm bordering on recklessness. Ulster was determined to
fight, as his father had said. He himself now believed that
London should fight, and would be right-though he never actually
said it. But in a speech at Bradford on March 14, 1914, he said
that it was time to "go forward together and put these grave
matters to the proof." He ordered the Third Battle Squadron to be
within an hour's sailing from Belfast, to show that the
legitimate government was serious about using force. Fortunately
Asquith quickly canceled the order. But it was known, and
bitterly resented, that Churchill was the foremost in the cabinet
in his willingness to coerce Ulstermen, whose greatest pride was
that they were "loyalists" and stuck by the empire, unlike the
southern Irish Catholics who were violently anti-British. If
Churchill found himself uncomfortable in this unusual role he did
not show it. He put himself firmly on the side of parliamentary
institutions and the rule of law. And, as always, action for him
was more hearteningand delicious-than sitting behind a
constitutional desk. If the crisis had exploded into civil war,
as looked likely by July 1914, it is not clear what Churchill
would have done. But the coming of European war shoved Ulster
violently onto the back burner, and Churchill eagerly turned his
attention in a totally different direction.
     In fact he had been working for some months to get the navy
into a high state of readiness, and as the buildup to war
accelerated, he ordered the navy not to disband after its summer
maneuvers but to take up action stations. From the start of the
crisis, he was a prominent member of the war party. The issue to
him was Belgium and her ports, especially Antwerp. Britain had
always been opposed to these ports, aimed like pistols at her
coast, being in the hands of a major power, especially France.
That was why Britain gave a solemn guarantee of Belgian
independence. Now Germany was the threat, and when the right wing
of the German army, as part of the "Schlieffen Plan" to subdue
France, swung through Belgian territory, Churchill was
enthusiastically in favor of Britain sticking to the guarantee -
"a mere scrap of paper" as the kaiser bitterly called it.
Moreover he persuaded Lloyd George to take the same view and
thus prevented the breakup of the government, though he was
unable to stop Lord Morley, his friend and mentor, from
resigning. When war came Churchill was ready, prepared
psychologically and in every way, for what he realized would be
the biggest conflict in history. He was like a man who had long
schooled himself for a job and was now told to do it. And he had
got the vast machine for which he was responsible geared up, too.
     The war, in many ways, proved a disaster for Churchill. But
on his downfall, Lord Kitchener, who had been made chiefwarlord
at the outset, reassured him, "There is one thing, at least, they
can never take away from youwhen the war began you had the fleet

To be continued              

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