October 14, 2008

by  Paul Addison

Reviewed by  Philip Ziegler
Finest Hour 78, First Quarter 1993

Addison’s study of Churchill’s domestic policy is well worth reading. For Churchill, home affairs were something to be concerned about when there was no war or prospect of one, but his prodigious energy and inventive mind ensured that even so secondary an interest generated great activity and often heat. “The mainspring of Churchill’s Radicalism was generosity; a dislike of Tariff Reform as selfish, and a warm-hearted desire to benefit the poor and oppressed” was A.J.P. Taylor’s judgment of his early days in politics and, by and large, Addison is equally magnanimous about the whole of his career.

From the earliest days Churchill supported collectivist social policies; he was profoundly suspicious of the motives and intentions of unbridled capitalism; he believed in strong trade unions, high wages, cheap housing; and in 1919 would have taxed to extinction the fortunes accumulated by the hard-faced men who had done well out of the first World War. (See “thwarting Socialism,’ in the article on page 11 this issue. -Ed.) Socialism alarmed him, but he believed that few Labour voters were what he meant by Socialist: “Trade Unions are not Socialistic,” he said. “They are the antithesis of Socialism. They are undoubtedly individualistic organisations, more in the character of the old Guilds than they are in that of the smooth and bloodless uniformity of the masses.’

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Yet his reforming zeal had strict limits. He was at heart an authoritarian paternalist, who believed in strong government and was apt to consider that any opposition to his usually benevolent if often erratic social policies must be the work of subversive agitators who should be curbed in the interests of the nation at large.’ He embodied,” writes Addison of Churchill’s period as Home Secretary, “to a remarkable extent, both the reforming and the conservative potential of the last Liberal Government.”

It is as a conservative rather than a reformer that Churchill is generally remembered, which is why this book is so desirable a corrective. His liberal reputation has been above all tarnished by two episodes in which his urge to strike attitudes and play the man of action largely obscured his real performance.

At Tonypandy in 1910 he did not send in the troops to shoot down the striking miners — on the contrary, he deferred troop movements until after serious rioting had broken out and even then kept their role to a discreet presence in the background. At the time of the General Strike he did not urge intransigence and bring pressure on Baldwin to abort a settlement which might otherwise have been achieved. But on both occasions the need for dramatic action went to his head: he swashed noisily and threatened to do such things that shall be the terror of the earth. There was, Addison admits, ‘much truth in the left-wing notion of Churchill as the extremist of the General Strike.”

In 1943 Churchill dismissed Beveridge as “an awful windbag and a dreamer,” but though he doubted the economic wisdom of Attlee’s postwar reforms, he never challenged the concept of the Welfare State. Nor, when he became Prime Minister again in 1951, did he make any attempt to put back the clock. His apparent rejection of socialist principles while in opposition proved to have been as much rhetorical as his denunciations of the communist influence in the General Strike. He championed free enterprise but never a Thatcherite free-for-all. Addison concludes that Churchill “was often dismissed as an adventurer but it was, of course, this quality of individualism for which, above all else. He stood. It was in his nature to believe in a land fit for adventurers to live in, and he imagined that his own conceptions of liberty and progress were shared by the mass of the people.”

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