By Michael McMenamin
On 15 April 1878, Lord Randolph Churchill wrote to his mother and young Winston’s grandmother, the Duchess of Marlborough, on the occasion of her birthday: “I write to wish you very many happy returns of your birthday to-morrow, which is also, as perhaps you may remember, our wedding-day; and having been married five years I begin to feel highly respectable….This is now the fifth birthday you have spent in Ireland, and I am sure it must be satisfactory to you to look back on the years you have spent there. I do not think you can recollect a contretemps or a cross; and I am sure, if I may say so, no one deserves a pleasanter retrospect: and believe me, I sincerely hope next 15th of April will find you as happy and untroubled as I hope you will be tomorrow.”
Already ostracized by the Oldham Conservative Association in January for his support of free trade, Churhcill suffered further indignity on March 29th when he rose to speak in the Commons and Prime Minister Balfour conspicuously exited the Chamber, followed by the front-bench ministers and most of the back benchers as well.
On April 22nd, Churchill addressed the House on a trade disputes bill, arguing that the rights of trade unions to engage in peaceful strikes should not be left in an uncertain state. Unfortunately, Churchill faltered at the end of his speech, losing the thread of his argument, and abruptly sat down, saying “I thank honourable members for having listened to me.” Roy Jenkins writes of this episode: “This would have been an appalling confidence-shattering experience for anyone. It was especially so for Churchill. [H]e was not a nervous young member endeavouring, rather beyond his capacity, to do his duty by his constituents. He was, by his own choice, a high-wire trapeze artist, and the sight of his falling off without a safety net must have been for many an almost irresistible pleasure.”
On May 31st, Churchill formally left the Unionist Party. As described by Sir Martin Gilbert: “Churchill entered the Chamber of the House of Commons, stood for a moment at the Bar, looked briefly at both the Government and Opposition benches and strode swiftly up the aisle. He bowed to the Speaker and turned sharply to his right to the Liberal benches. He sat down next to Lloyd George in a seat that his father had occupied when in opposition— indeed the same seat on which Lord Randolph had stood waving his handkerchief to cheer the downfall of Gladstone in 1885.”
This was the most important moment in Churchill’s young political career and, that same day, he wrote a long letter to his American friend and political mentor Bourke Cockran, tentatively accepting an invitation to travel to America for the 1906 Democratic convention: “I shall look forward immensely to having some long talks with you. You are in some measure responsible for the mould in which my political thought has been largely cast, and for the course which I have adopted on these great questions of Free Trade. It is in different spheres we are fighting in a common cause, and there can be no doubt that a Democratic victory in America resulting in the reductions of the tariffs through the deliberate convictions of the American people, would utterly smash once and for all the Protectionist movement here.”
In his letter, Churchill also took pains to minimize to his oratorical role model his lapse in the House the month before, on which Cockran had expressed concern: “You need not be worried by my losing my thread in a speech some weeks ago. The slip was purely mechanical, and was due to my style of preparation, which as you know, is very elaborate. I had reached the very last sentence in my speech, and as the concluding phrases were not in the nature of argument but of rhetoric, when my memory failed me, I could not bring the reasoning faculty to bear, and as I had nothing more to say – having finished my remarks – and no clue on my notes for the concluding sentence, I had no choice but to sit down. I am actually in very good health at present – in much better health in fact than when I was in America four years ago….”
Churchill’s fifth volume of his history of the Great War, The Aftermath, was published in March to great acclaim. Lord Balfour sent his congratulations to Churchill, the snub of twenty-five years earlier having faded in significance: “Do you remember my visits to the Admiralty at the beginning of the war when you were good enough to explain all the difficulties and anxieties of a First Lord in a great Naval War dealing with wholly novel problems both of tactics and strategy? That was little more than fourteen years ago. Into those fourteen years you have not only compressed unique experiences in war by sea and land, in diplomacy, in House of Commons’ work, and in constructive legislation; but you have contrived to write a book which, both as an original authority and as a most admirable literary performance, will hold a permanent place in the history of our country. During all those years I have been a friend and admirer, and, unless my memory fails me, an occasional opponent.” (Balfour’s view of Volume I in a private remark was more flippant: “Winston’s magnificent autobiography, disguised as a history of the universe.”)
Churchill explained in an April letter to Katherine Asquith, whose husband and brother were killed on the Western Front, what he hoped to accomplish with his books on the war: “How strange it is that the past is so little understood and so quickly forgotten. We live in the most thoughtless of ages. Every day headlines and short views. I have tried to drag history up a little nearer to our own times in case it should be helpful as a guide in present difficulties.”
Throughout the spring, Churchill negotiated contracts and advances for a biography of his ancestor, John, Duke of Marlborough, and prepared the details of his fifth and final budget, which he delivered on April 15th. His once and future adversary, Neville Chamberlain, wrote in his diary that Churchill’s budget speech “was one of the best he rated and enthralled by its wit, audacity, adroitness and power.”
A General Election was scheduled for May 30th and Churchill campaigned vigorously, some might say negatively, openly attacking Ramsay MacDonald’s wartime pacifism and support for the General Strike. He said on May 27th in Liverpool: “Mr. MacDonald’s argument is very much like the German contention that, if all the nations opposed to Germany had given way, there would have been no war. Mr. MacDonald has always taken the German point of view in those matters, and his record has chiefly consisted in unexampled desertion of his country in every crisis of her fate.”
The next day in Harlow, he returned more explicitly to the same theme: “Mr. Ramsay MacDonald is counting the minutes when, as he anticipates, he will be called upon to have this country in his grip. I think his record ought not to be overlooked. Is he a friend of our country? What was his record in the War and in the general strike? The two greatest State crises in my life were the attempts to overturn this country in 1926 by a great conspiracy to paralyse industry and the struggle of the War, through which we all passed. What did Mr. Ramsay MacDonald do in each of those two crises? Took a line that would have left the country prostrate, first under the heels of the Germans, and secondly under the heels of the general strikers….Ought the disposition of the offices of the Crown, the settlement of all our affairs, to be confided to this man who, on those two occasions, lapsed and slid into a position absolutely unhelpful, if not actually hostile, to the vital interests of the State?”
In the event, the Socialists formed a new government with MacDonald back for a second time as Prime Minister. They had won 288 seats as against 260 for the Conservatives and 59 for the Liberals. Churchill was re-elected, but with only a plurality of the vote. He was out of political office for the third time in his career and promptly began lining up newspaper commissions to fund a grand, three-month holiday in North America—unaware that his stay in the political wilderness would extend for another ten years.
In March, Churchill told Anthony Eden, his Foreign Secretary and designated successor, that he had decided to resign in May or the end of summer at latest. He told Lord Moran the same thing but then spent the rest of the spring backing away from that decision. The New York Times commented on March 31st about Churchill’s performance in the Commons: “For the first time since Parliament reconvened last autumn, Sir Winston appeared unsure of himself.” The Daily Mirror, in its leader, “Twilight of a Giant” the following day, was less kind: “Old and tired, he mouthed comfortless words in the twilight of his career. His battles are past. This is the Giant in decay.”
Churchill knew he wasn’t the man he had once been, but Martin Gilbert explains: “Frail though he was, Churchill was at that very moment preparing a speech on the hydrogen bomb, which he made in the Commons on April 5. Nothing could be more disastrous to the survival of Western Europe and the safety of Britain, he warned, ‘than a great dispute between Britain and the United States.’ He also spoke, as he had done almost a year earlier, on May 11, of the possibility of a summit meeting; one which would now have a different ‘topic’ as a result of Eisenhower’s United Nations speech proposing a new consultative and cooperative machinery for the industrial atomic sphere.”
But the speech did not go as well as Churchill had hoped because he did not or could not respond to the attacks of the Socialists in his customary fashion. The Times noted that the Opposition “for once did not stimulate him to combat. It seemed to rob his voice of resonance and left him ploughing doggedly through this section of his speech.”
During this same period, Churchill acknowledged his old mentor, Bourke Cockran, in accepting in absentia on April 7th a Doctorate of Laws from the State University of New York. Recalling their first meeting, he said: “I was only a young cavalry subaltern but he poured out all his wealth of mind and eloquence to me. Some of his sentences are deeply rooted in my mind. ‘The earth,’ he said, ‘is a generous mother. She will produce in plentiful abundance food for all her children if they will but cultivate her soil in justice and in peace.’…There was another thing Bourke Cockran used to say to me. I cannot remember his actual words but they amounted to this: ‘In a society where there is democratic tolerance and freedom under the law, many kinds of evils will crop up, but give them a little time and they usually breed their own cure.’ I do not see any reason to doubt the truth of that…[and] I remain, as I have said, a strong supporter of the principles which Mr. Bourke Cockran inculcated into me on my youthful visit before most of you were born.”
Get the Churchill Bulletin delivered to your inbox once a month.