Finest Hour 113, Winter 2001-02
By Michael McMenamin
125 Years Ago:
Winter 1876-77 • Age 2
“He thought you would understand…”
Winter found Winston’s parents still experiencing the aftermath of Lord Randolph’s unfortunate interference in the marital difficulties of Lord and Lady Aylesford, the former a close friend of the Prince of Wales, and the latter a former lover both of His Royal Highness and, more recently, Randolph’s brother, Lord Blandford.
In addition to leaving the country to serve as unpaid secretary to his father, the newly appointed Viceroy of Ireland (unpaid so that Randolph could retain his seat in Parliament), Lord Randolph was required as punishment to tender a formal written apology to the Prince in language dictated by, among others, Prime Minister Disraeli.
Winston’s father having done so (“however ungraciously,” wrote one close observer), the Prince of Wales refused to “accept” the apology, apparently in a fit of pique. This did not sit well with Lord Randolph’s father, the Duke of Marlborough, who made his objections known. So it was that on 10 January 1877, the day before Winston and his mother arrived in Ireland, the Prince of Wales allowed the following letter to be sent to the Duke on his behalf by Francis Knollys: “The Prince of Wales desires me to say that as he received and retained your son’s ‘apology and retraction’ he thought you would understand he had accepted it….The Prince having lately heard, however, that some uncertainty and misapprehension exists in your mind on the subject, directs me to let you know that in accordance with the above named condition, he has received your son’s ‘apology and retraction.'”
100 Years Ago:
Winter 1901-02 • Age 27
“Before what tribunal and before what judge?”
During the winter of 1901, Churchill was reading and much impressed by Seebohm Rowntree’s Poverty, A Study of Town Life. In December, Churchill wrote to a friend about the book: “It is quite evident from the figures which he adduces that the American labourer is a stronger, larger, healthier, better fed, and consequently more efficient animal than a large proportion of our population, and this is surely a fact which our unbridled Imperialists, who have no thought but to pile up armaments, taxation and territory, should not lose sight of. For my own part, I see little glory in an Empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its sewers.”
Speaking at Blackpool on 9 January, Churchill commented unfavorably on one aspect of a recent speech by the Liberal imperialist Lord Rosebery. While critical of the current government—a sentiment with which Churchill agreed—Rosebery had, in Churchill’s words, gone “out of his way to disparage the House of Commons…. When Lord Rosebery told us that Parliamentary Government is on its trial, and we remember what the House of Commons is and what its history is—that at this moment it is elected to represent the enormous mass of the thinking people of this country, that it is the only place for certain in the whole range of the Empire where the most unpopular opinions can be expressed with the greatest freedom, that the House of Commons more than any other institution has shaped and directed the free constitutions of Europe, that it is the only institution in the country which shows that the Government belongs to the people and not the people to the Government, then, I ask, if it is on its trial, before what tribunal and before what judge?” (Cheers.)
Throughout the winter, Churchill continued to give speeches on the war in South Africa and the three permanent army corps scheme of St. John Brodrick, the Secretary of State for War. Brodrick’s original proposals had included a call for conscription. After that proposal had been dropped, Churchill told the Commons on 6 March that “my right honourable Friend has finally and thoroughly abandoned the fatal and foolish theory of conscription, which no doubt would be still of some use providing occupation for members in another place [the House of Lords] who had not got too much to do….My right honourable friend, in a very eloquent passage in his speech, said that conscript soldiers did not fight at Alma, Waterloo, or Delhi. I thought my honourable friend might have said with equal force that it was not conscript soldiers who had fought the long weary war in South Africa so steadily and unflinchingly. I do not wish to say anything uncomplimentary to any foreign nation in view of their extremely delicate susceptibilities but I should like to see the conscript soldiers who would do what the British soldiers have done in South Africa.”
75 Years Ago:
Winter 1926-27 • Age 52
“No Evil Worse”
On December 28th, Churchill wrote Beaverbrook: “There are very great things to be done by those who reach a certain scale of comprehension & of power in their early prime. As long as health & life are ours, we must try to do them not to be content except with the best & truest solutions.”
A civil war in China was the occasion in January for sending additional British troops to China to protect British lives and property from attacks by bandits. This action had drawn partisan criticism on the grounds that it could lead to an intervention in the civil war on behalf of Chiang Kai-shek and against the Communists. Writing privately to Baldwin in January from the South of France, Churchill offered both his support and a rationale for protecting British lives against irregular armed enemies which resonates today:
“There is no evil worse than submitting to wrong and violence for fear of war. Once you take the position of not being able in any circumstances to defend your rights against the aggression of some particular set of people, there is no end to the demands that will be made or to the humiliations that must be accepted.”
During this period Churchill rarely let pass an opportunity to express his opposition to Socialism and its evil twin Communism. At Manchester on 4 February he said: “The difference is that the Communist seeks to achieve his ends by violence, and the Socialist seeks to achieve the same ends by humbug.” After the laughter and cheers had faded, Churchill posed a rhetorical question based on Lenin’s new market-based economic policy imposed after Russia’s planned economy had faltered: “Who is the man who had the most expensive education in the world? The answer is Lenin. His education cost at least five million lives and involved the exile of at least three million other Russians.”
Earlier that winter, at Malta in December, Churchill had played his last game of polo, having written to his friends: “If I expire on the ground, it will at any rate be a worthy end.”
50 Years Ago:
Winter 1951-52 • Age 77
“How he loves it!”
Issues involving China and the Soviet Union were prominent during the early days of Churchill’s second term as Prime Minister, as he left on 31 December for a visit to America. He wrote to his wife near the end of the tiring journey: “I have just finished what seems to be the most strenuous fortnight….! shall indeed be delighted to get home. I never remember 3 weeks taking so long to live, although it has been all kindness & compliments.”
Five plenary sessions were held with the Americans on NATO, naval and other defense matters, the Suez Canal and Egypt, the Korean War and British reaction if China were to launch air attacks across the Yalu River.
It was the last issue which provided Churchill the opportunity for a dramatic triumph in the House of Commons. It came late in February, less than three weeks after the death of King George, and only five days after “an arterial spasm” (according to his physician, Lord Moran) left Churchill weakened and his close friends and advisers conferring on ways to persuade him to move to the relative tranquility of the House of Lords while still remaining Prime Minister.
In America, Churchill had told a joint session of Congress that the British reaction, if the Chinese were to escalate the war in Korea, would be “prompt, resolute and effective.” The Labour Party seized upon this and filed a motion of censure in the House of Commons, charging him with seeking to make war on China to foreshorten the Korean conflict.
Churchill kept his powder dry and, during the debate on the motion on 26 February, dropped his bombshell, revealing that, while in power, the Labour government had twice agreed to bomb any Chinese bases from which air attacks on UN troops in Korean were launched: “Her Majesty’s Government consider that the decision of our predecessors was right and, in my view, in both cases it justifies the words which I used in the United States Congress, namely ‘prompt, resolute and effective.'”
A newly elected Conservative MP, Nigel Nicolson, described Labour’s reaction to Churchill’s broadside in a letter to his father Harold: “I was sitting directly opposite Attlee. He was sitting hunched up like an elf just out of its chrysalis, and stared at Winston, turning slowly white. The Labour benches howled—anything to make a noise to cover up the moment of shock. Winston sat back beaming. [Aneurin] Bevan—a most charming, dangerous man—did his best to launch a counterattack, but it was too late. We had won.”
In the same letter to his father, Nicolson, who was unaware of Churchill’s arterial spasm five days earlier, described the PM’s appearance: “How much better he is in the House than on a platform! How he loves it! He is looking white and fatty, a most unhealthy look, you would say, if he were anyone else, but somehow out of this sickly mountain comes a volcanic flash.” Afterwards, Churchill himself described the debate to Nigel Nicolson as “a great day, a great triumph.”