Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998
By LUIGI BARZINI, SR.
What was it really like to watch Churchill win Dundee for the Literals in 1910, A contemporary reporter brings the rollicking scene to life.
Do want to see a lively election?” a specialist asked me. “Go to Dundee in Scotland where a Right Honourable Winston Churchill, the Secretary of Commerce,* is set to have an unpleasant quarter of an hour.” I went to Dundee. The Right Honourable did not pass a nasty quarter of an hour, but the election was lively. Half of the prediction therefore came true. And that’s not bad for a political prediction.
When I arrived, Dundee was still asleep, tired perhaps from the rallies and assemblies, which lasted until late. I found myself the only living thing in the unknown, dark, silent, freezing streets, in company with my luggage which I moved, almost as if I had become a politician, from right to left and vice-versa, as the need arose.
There is the large Queen’s Hotel. Every British city has a Queen’s Hotel. I knocked and begged a room, but there was no room. Winston Churchill and his staff had taken the hotel over. I was shown another hotel, the Royal. A ten minute walk. I knocked and begged a room. Impossible! The Conservative candidate, Seymour Lloyd, and his staff had taken every room from the ground floor to the attic. I plunged into other streets and found in another hotel the headquarters of the Unionist candidate, James Glass. I started my pilgrimage once more. As dawn appeared I found an inn and rang the bell with all the force of desperation.
“Is this,” I asked the porter, “the headquarters of the Labour Party?”
“And the Prohibitionist Party?”
“Not even the Feminist Party?”
“Oh no, Sir.”
“Well, give me a room then!”
These completely personal difficulties are not without political interest. They show how Dundee was occupied by various electoral armies about to set out on manoeuvres. They started with an unleashing of the advance guard mounted on automobiles which were decorated with flags, rosettes, flowers and trophies in such a way so as to seem ready for a gala parade.
The automobile has entered politics. It enables the candidate to go and speak in every village, the canvasser to go and convince every elector, and every elector to go and cast his vote.
The consequences of the battle are worrying the well-known medical journal, The Lancet, which foresees the honourable representatives of the nation coming down with serious nervous illness and throat disturbances. This campaign will provoke no fewer losses than a battle. However, the authoritative journal has not considered the restorative effects of victory. Only the losing candidates will fall ill. The greatest sufferers in this campaign will be the automobiles.
At Dundee the election was held in a cordial, characteristic way. The men voted. The children were noisy. It was a great political party for infancy. The city was full of crowds of minors whose argentine shouts echoed for hours and hours, penetrating and happy, covering every sound.
The polling stations were in schools and produced a phenomenon in which the adults went to school and the pupils stayed outside. The unemployed became last minute workers. Outside of every polling station were the carefree sounds of a school during break-time.
The children had the name of a candidate pinned onto their caps and a bundle of posters under their arms. These Lilliputian agents pestered the electors. With an air of laying siege to a castle, they grabbed the tails of the colossus and stuck notices in his pockets, they shouted Hurrah and then ran off, being distracted every now and again from their grave electoral tasks by games of hide and seek.
In a poor area I see a five-year-old Liberal canvasser upon whose head is the word “Churchill” and who is shouting “Churchill!” at the top of his voice. Suddenly the tiny canvasser falls silent. He seems worried, he squats down, and a small river passes under him showing his unlimited love for freedom….
After the children come the women. Dundee suffragettes are on the rampage. Platoons of them are outside the polling stations; young, old, beautiful, ugly, insensitive and tireless. In the polling stations there is some worry that some female Guy Fox [sic! perhaps he meant “Fawkes” —translator] is lying in wait with evil intent, but today the suffragettes are tame, smiling, seductive, and all they are asking is for the electors to sign their petition to Parliament in order to obtain the vote. Armed with forms and pencils they leap upon the adversaries and present their two things with unheard-of courtesy. They are now doing things the legal way. The elector, taken by his weak side, smiles and signs.
Tables and chairs have been brought out onto the street, thus setting up open-air offices. They have even set up a shop covered with posters where one can take tea served by active suffragettes who give out picture postcards with the cups and make speeches about women’s rights, all for the modest price of sixpence.
But not all political women are suffragettes. At the polling stations doors are Liberal women, Unionist women, Labour women handing out leaflets, advice, and rosettes. Up here the meaning of the rosette is more complicated than at Manchester, where opinions are represented by simple colours. At Dundee, tariff reform is shown by white and red; work by red and yellow; socialism by white; feminism by white, purple and green. The candidates and their consorts go from polling area to polling area on their bedecked automobiles, except for the socialist who only has a cart drawn by a grey horse. When they arrive, enthusiasm reaches a high pitch, and young voices screech out.
At midday Winston Churchill leaves his beautiful wife to carry on the rounds and goes off to play golf. The news gets out. Dundee admires the greatness of this man who can dedicate himself to sport so calmly while fighting his battle. Reporters rush to the golf links and phone their papers with the news that Churchill plays as well as Balfour. And the committees announce the event.
I find Churchill returning to his hotel. He is the touch of grace in the radical cabinet and has the methods and the face of a tenor. He has yellow blond hair worn like a pianist’s, grey penetrating eyes and a slim mouth. There is an expression of sureness on his strong, wide, clean-shaven face with its small, round protruding chin. He is very busy; he even has to write a few sentences in an enthusiastic lady’s notebook. On the mantlepiece are some books: his book The People’s Rights, Plutarch’s Lives, a history of Europe and the history of the British Parliament.
Astrange man, Churchill. He became popular as a war correspondent for the Morning Post. I remember eleven years ago telegraphing the Corriere della Sera the story of his sensational escape from Pretoria, where he was being held prisoner during the Boer War. That story was later contradicted,* but popularity had been won. He entered politics as a Unionist and then moved to the Radical Party. Having lost his seat at Manchester, he then created in this strip of Scotland an unshakable pedestal.
A smooth writer, he has published four or five books on the Indian and African Campaigns and a novel. A lively, charming, untiring speaker, he knows how to speak in the right way to every kind of public, and knows how to find the phrase which enthuses. He is not yet forty. The Unionists were wrong if they thought they could have fought him easily. Dundee is Churchillian and the whole of Scotland is Radical, if only for its old antagonism with England. The Scots do hide their sense of superiority over the English. A journalist from Glasgow explained the picturesque politics of the children in Dundee: “Scottish children are more educated and more intelligent than English children.”
The crowd increased in the afternoon. In front of the polling stations, especially in the central areas, the characteristic Scots gather with their clean-shaven faces, maitre d’hotel sideburns, good natured shrewd smiles, humorous asides and merry conversations. Joyful remarks are exchanged. Politics doesn’t make anyone angry. It’s easy to smile. Improvised speakers fight each other friendly, with phrases in dialect which make even the policemen smile.
This chest one old man has a handwritten poster full of spelling mistakes. He says he is FOR THE LORDS. He is in rags. The crowd give him the nickname “Lord Boom,” and salute him. I hear a conversation between two women: “I’ve been looking for my husband for four hours. He hasn’t come home. He must be here working for politics.
“What party is your husband?”
“The evening before last he went to a Unionist meeting. Yesterday evening he went to a Liberal meeting.”
“But what is he at home?”
“A downright drunkard!”
Husbands such as these can not be all that rare. We are in the home of whisky and old scotch. There are a number of shining, smiling eyes. A lot of tongues are confused. Words and gaits have an uncertainty about them which would be deplorable in politics.
In the evening the streets come alive with expectant crowds. Processions of young boys, many with naked legs under the classical Scottish kilt, pass by singing at the tops of their voices…. old songs with new words, led by flags. These youthful demonstrators break through the throngs, appearing from everywhere and passing by one another. They are in charge of Dundee. They work their way through the steep streets, down towards the sea.
Be one huge carnival, one of the strange childhood festivities, which in certain days bring large numbers of children to the courtyards of Japanese temples. An election here can be nothing less than pacific. The small ones get between the combatants and hostility is disarmed.
The ballot boxes are closed. One interesting scene is to be found in the Sheriff Court Building, a sort of court where the votes are counted. The ballot boxes and electoral registers wrapped in sealed canvas sacks arrive being carried religiously and solemnly. The candidates, according to English custom, are present at the count. Like condemned men they are pale-faced and nervous, pretending to be distracted, studying the ceiling. Two names above all are repeated by the monotonous voices of the clerks who are counting the votes under the eyes of the magistrates: Churchill and Wilkie. Wilkie is the Labour Party candidate. Small and short with a grey beard, he is quite visibly overcome by emotion, which gives his face a scared expression and a corpse-like pallor. As victory takes on a clearer shape, expressions change. The losers pretend to smile; the winners take on a resigned, humble air. But their eyes tell the truth, and show where there is joy and where there is sadness.
The vote counting operation takes a long time. Dundee has to return two representatives but, by a quirk of British law, it is not divided into two constituencies. Instead, every elector has two votes, both of which may be cast provided they are not for the same candidate. Eighty-six percent of the electors have turned out to vote. The Liberals are associated with the Labour Party. Churchill and Wilkie have collected an equal number of votes, three-quarters of those cast.
The crowd outside is singing and waiting. The less happy voices of the grown-ups have taken the place of those of the children, who have probably gone to bed. Seen from the balcony of the Sheriff Court, the crowd, that mass of raised faces, is frightening. Multitudes always have something threatening about them. Divisions, whirlpools of groups can be seen. Just as with fields of corn in the wind, the people are swaying from one side of the square to the other, like waves. Old, solemn Scottish songs start up in one part and spread and fade and gusts of Hurrahs rise up.
It is just a few minutes before midnight when the final results are made known. In the Hall the customary entourage forms up. The doors are thrown open. The Sheriff comes out in gown and wig, followed by his clerks. Behind him in order of voting come the candidates. Then come the candidates’ wives (in the same order) and then in a group everyone else present.
Secretary Churchill is happy; an insistent smile is moving his lips. This he finds out of place given the solemnity of the moment, and with an instinctive gesture he hides it in the palm of his hand. But later, when the Sheriff announces the result to the people from the balcony, he moves to one side and Churchill frees the smile, which the frenzied crowd gives right back. Mrs. Churchill waves a handkerchief and over the crowd is a rustling of waving handkerchiefs in reply. Churchill then steps up onto an automobile waving his hat, and the victory drive does not finish until two o’clock in the morning, after three speeches given for generosity. He has an escort of forty policemen.
“Why,” I asked one of the police escorts “are you surrounding the Secretary of Commerce like this? Are you afraid of an attempt on his life?”
“Are anarchists around?”
“Worse. There are Suffragettes.”
Mr. Barzini was a distinguished Italian journalist of the early 20th century. His report, from Corriere della Sera, 23 January 1910, appears here for the first time in English. Translation by Andrew Martin Garvey and Patrizio Romano Giangreco.
*WSC fought the election as President of the Board of Trade, roughly equivalent to an American Secretary of Commerce but not a Secretaryship in Britain. The day after, he was appointed Home Secretary, his first Secretaryship.
*Barzini may refer to the controversy that arose after fellow prisoner Aylmer Haldane stated that Churchill had escaped while leaving his fellow escapees still imprisoned; this was later disproved. See the Official Biography, Vol. 2.