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Action This Day II – Spring 1878, 1903, 1928, 1953

Finest Hour 118, Spring 2003

Page 18


125 Years Ago:

Spring 1878-Age 3

“This silent youth could bite”

In March, Lord Randolph Churchill seized an opportunity to make his first major impression on the House of Commons and bring himself to the attention of the Conservative leadership. He attacked Mr. Sclater-Booth, President of the Local Government Board, and his reform proposal (“this crowning desertion of Tory principles, this supreme violation of political honesty”). Winston later wrote that “such language had not been heard in the House of Commons since Lord Cranborne had fought the Franchise Bill and, coming as it did from a member who so seldom addressed the House, at a time when party discipline was so good and the prestige of the Government so high, it created quite a commotion.”

In the event, the reform proposal was dropped by the Government and Lord Randolph thought he had not suffered politically: in fact quite the opposite. In a letter to his father, the Duke of Marlborough, Randolph wrote, “I do not think the Government is at all ill disposed towards me for my speech against them. I have found them lately singularly civil. Nobody regrets the Bill, except Sclater-Booth, who is unapproachable on the subject.”

“Thus,” wrote Churchill in his biography of his then thirty-year-old father, “for the first time the House of Commons had learned that this silent youth could bite.”

100 Years Ago:

Spring 1903-Age 28

“The Lobbies will be crowded with the touts of protected industries”

At a comparable age, Churchill showed no more restraint than his father in publicly attacking leading members of his own party. On May 15th the Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, spoke at Birmingham, advocating the imposition of preferential tariffs. Two weeks later, Chamberlain broached the subject in the House. Foreshadowing his eventual departure from the Tory party over this issue, Churchill rose immediately in reply:

“This move means a change, not only in historic English Parties, but in the conditions of our public life. The old Conservative Party, with its religious convictions and constitutional principles, will disappear, and a new Party will arise like perhaps the Republican Party of the United States—rich, materialist, and secular—whose opinions will turn on tariffs, and who will cause the lobbies to be crowded with the touts of protected industries.

“What is the cause of this change? Never was the wealth of the country greater, or the trade returns higher, or the loyalty of the colonies more pronounced. Is it that we are tired of these good days?”

In a letter written after Chamberlain’s Birmingham speech, Churchill showed what his son termed “one of [his] earliest recognitions of where America’s true interests in Europe lay and earliest anticipations that America might be drawn into a European war”:

“I do not want a self-contained Empire. It is very much better that the great nations of the world should be interdependent one upon the other than that they should be independent of each other. That makes powerfully for peace and it is chiefly through the cause of the great traffic of one great nation with another during the last twenty-five years that the peace of Europe has been preserved through so many crises. And even if it comes to a European war, do you not think it very much better that the United States should be vitally interested in keeping the English market open, than that they should be utterly careless of what happens to their present principal customer?”

A few days later, Churchill wrote dramatically to Prime Minister Balfour, with what Roy Jenkins has termed “self-confidence and determination always to go straight to the top.” He would cease his opposition to the government’s Army expansion if Balfour would continue to support free trade:

“I feel perhaps that I may have sometimes been the cause of embarrassment to the government….but I should like to tell you that an attempt on your part to preserve the Free Trade policy & character of the Tory party would command my absolute loyalty. I would even swallow six army corps—if it would make any difference & sink all minor differences.”

75 Years Ago:

Spring 1928-Age 53

“Bold…ingenious…a product of his own fertile mind”

Spring saw Churchill finally persuade the Cabinet to adopt, and Parliament to enact, his massive tax cut of local rates on industry to give the economy what Roy Jenkins has termed “a dramatic and wide-ranging stimulus to economic activity.” Jenkins further described Churchill’s tax cut as “obviously bold…ingenious, and to some extent a product of his own fertile mind….It was very much his own initiative. Treasury officials…were to say the least cool. They would have preferred him to devote any surplus he could muster to debt reduction.”

Churchill’s tenure at the Exchequer in the Twenties is often criticized by those whose knowledge of his term there is unencumbered by familiarity with economics, and is largely based on Churchill’s early return to the gold standard and John Maynard Keynes’s criticism of it. Churchill is fortunate that his most recent biographer, Roy Jenkins, himself a Chancellor in a Labour government, has offered a more balanced appreciation of the economic significance of Churchill’s tax cut stimulus and his tenure at the Treasury. In the event, Churchill’s Socialist successor as Chancellor, Philip Snowden, was to increase taxes in the teeth of a new economic downturn in 1930.

Writing to his wife on April 5th, Churchill described his final efforts to persuade the Cabinet and his chief opposition within it, Minister of Health Neville Chamberlain, to adopt his tax cuts: “The Cabinets on my big policy were very lengthy and difficult. Neville most obstinate and, I thought, unreasonable. But he made his point a matter of amour propre and, as I cared about the scheme much more then he, I had to give way. It was not a very important point, and substantially my plan is intact.”

Chamberlain had a different view of these same events, writing that summer to Lord Irwin (later Lord Halifax): “I accused Winston of reckless advocacy of schemes the effects of which he himself did not understand. He accused me of pedantry and of personal jealousy of himself. At times feelings became rather acute. But I had one advantage over Winston of which he was painfully conscious. He could not do without me. Therefore in the end I was the sole judge of how far to go because whenever I put my foot down he was helpless. As a matter of fact I only put it down once and he gave way directly.”

The budget and its tax cut centerpiece were warmly received. A friend and sometime Conservative critic, Leo Amery, wrote in his diary: “the first impression was very formidable indeed, and our Party was delighted….” Lord Derby told Churchill, “It is not the budget of an electioneer but of a statesman.” Lord Tyrrell called it “a great landmark in your career & your certificate of statesmanship.”

50 Years Ago

Spring 1953* Age 78

“We must not cast away a single hope”

The death of Stalin on March 5th was the occasion for Churchill to encourage President Eisenhower to join with him in reaching out to the new Soviet leadership: “I remember…when you told me I was welcome to meet Stalin if I thought fit and that you intended to offer to do so. I understand this as meaning that you did not want us to go together, but now there is no more Stalin I wonder whether this makes any difference to your view about separate approaches to the new regime or whether there is a possibility of collective action.”

Eisenhower rebuffed Churchill: “I tend to doubt the wisdom of a formal multilateral meeting since this would give our opponent the same kind of opportunity he has so often had—to use such a meeting simultaneously to balk every reasonable effort of ourselves, and to make of the whole occurrence another propaganda mill for the Soviet.”

Churchill persisted, however, directing Eden in early April to send a telegram to Soviet Foreign Minister Molotov, thanking him for the recent release of British civilians in North Korea, and adding: “I am encouraged by this to ask myself whether there are further questions directly arising between our two Governments on which progress might now be made.”

Relations between Churchill and Eden were somewhat strained. Eden wrote to his son on 10 April: “All is well otherwise, except that W gets daily older & is apt to ring up & waste a great deal of time. Between ourselves, the outside world has little idea how difficult that becomes. Please make me retire before I am 80!” The problem was temporarily resolved when Eden’s health took a turn for the worse and Churchill became Acting Foreign Secretary for an extended period.

Recalling his tax-cutting days as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill could not resist mocking the Socialist opposition during the introduction of the second budget in his administration: “Last Tuesday I went to the House of Commons to hear…the first Budget since the war without any new taxes.” With relish, he described the opposition’s reaction to this “most insulting and malevolent” tax cut: “I wish you had been there with me to see the look of absolute misery and anger which swept across the crowded faces opposite. Sixpence off the income tax! Class favour to over thirty millions of people. Only nine shillings in the pound left for the income tax collector!”

Churchill then turned to new leadership in Moscow: “Is there a new breeze blowing on the tormented world? [A]t the end of the war…I could not understand why Soviet Russia did not join with the Western Allies in seeking a just and lasting treaty of peace….Now it may be that another chance will come. Perhaps indeed it has come. We cannot tell. The future is inscrutable. But as so often happens the path of duty is clear. We must not cast away a single hope, however slender, so long as we believe there is good faith and goodwill.” 

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