Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
Action This Day – Winter 1880-81, 1905-06, 1930-31, 1955-56
By Michael McMenamin
“Everything I do or say or wear is found fault with.” —Lady Randolph Churchill, 1880. “We have fought together through testing times: we have learnt to appreciate each other’s good qualities and to be kindly indulgent to qualities less good, if indeed they exist.” —Stanley Baldwin, 1931
125 YEARS AGO:
Winter 1880-81 • Age 6
“Rather like a volcano…”
Winston was back in London after he and his family had spent November and the first part of December at Blenheim Place where his mother, Lady Randolph, had not enjoyed a happy stay. Jennie to her mother: “It will be great fun going to Paris together…. I quite forget what it is like to be with people who love me…. I loathe living here. It is no use disguising it, the Duchess hates me simply for what I am—perhaps a little prettier & more attractive than her daughters. Everything I do or say or wear is found fault with. We are always studiously polite to each other, but it is rather like a volcano, ready to burst out at any moment.”
The volcanoes that were, respectively, Ireland and Lord Randolph, did in fact burst out that winter. The “boycott”––named after its first victim, the unfortunate Captain Boycott – was introduced by the Irish Land League whereby those who evicted tenants from their land were shunned by the community. As Churchill described it in his biography of his father, Captain Boycott’s “servants left him. The local shopkeepers refused to serve him. The blacksmith and the laundress declined his orders. His crops remained ungathered on the ground…. Nothing was more unexpected than the precision with which an impulsive and undisciplined peasantry gave effect to this new plan. Whole counties conspired together to make it complete. Every class in the population acquiesced. Public opinion supported the Land League and no moral force sustained the government of the Queen.”
The reaction of the Liberal government was surprisingly extreme– suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act, something Churchill described in his father’s biography as “desperate, unwarranted and ill-chosen.” With one exception, the Conservative Party had no problem with once more suspending civil liberties in Ireland. That exception was Churchill’s father, Lord Randolph, and he ignored entreaties from his Fourth Party comrades and Disraeli alike in attacking the Liberal government on this issue. Winston wrote: “[T]he repressive measures, involving as they did immense abridgments of liberty and wholesale suspension of the most elementary civil rights, offended deeper instincts in Lord Randolph’s nature. If as a party man he disliked the Government, he hated Coercion for its own sake; and this double tide of antagonism carried him to lengths which, for a time, disturbed and even destroyed the harmony of the Fourth Party.”
100 YEARS AGO
Winter 1905-06 • Age 31
“I have been much put off.”
On 3 January 1906, Churchill traveled to Manchester to begin his first election campaign as a member of the Liberal Party. While Manchester was solidly Conservative, it was also the center of Free Trade fervor, the home of Cobden and Bright; and Free Trade was to be the issue on which the election campaign was to be fought.
While the campaign was fought on the issue of free trade, women’s suffrage was frequently raised at Churchill’s speeches by women who used disruptive tactics to make their point. This happened at a meeting at the Heywood Street School on 4 January 1906 where Churchill was interrupted by suffragettes. He offered to give one such young woman five minutes at the end of his speech where he would answer any questions on women’s suffrage. Declining the offer, she continued to speak and was ejected. But Churchill entertained questions as he had promised and said: “I voted in favour of the enfranchisement of women in the session before last. Although I think this a question of great difficulty, I was steadily moving forward to the position of a whole-hearted supporter of their case. But I have been much put off by what has happened in the last few months. I have seen five or six great meetings thrown into disorder by people getting up and shouting till they were turned out. I will not go one inch beyond my [earlier] declaration…. I should in that way be giving way to the violent interruptions which have happened at my meetings. With regard to what my future action may be, having regard to the pressure put upon me, I utterly decline to state.”
With a turnout of 80% of eligible voters, Churchill was elected with 56% of the vote in Manchester where Conservatives lost all eight seats they had held. Nationwide, Liberals won 377 seats, Conservatives only 157.
75 YEARS AGO:
Winter 1930-31 • Age 56
“A great liner is sinking in a calm sea…”
In a letter to his son on 8 January 1931, Churchill predicted the fall of the Labour Government and Baldwin’s return as Prime Minister—but said he had no desire to join the Cabinet and “be saddled with all the burden of whole-hog Protection, plus unlimited doses of Irwinism for India. I shall be much more able to help the country from outside. I feel a great deal stronger since the Indian situation developed, although most people will tell you the opposite. It is a great comfort when one minds the questions one cares about far more than office or party or friendships.”
On 26 January 1931, Churchill spoke in the Commons against his own party’s India policy for the first time, a day after Lord Irwin had freed Gandhi from prison which, Martin Gilbert writes, “provoked an immediate and widespread protest both from British officials in India and from Conservatives in Britain.”
Churchill reminded the House that Congress party leaders with whom the British government was negotiating were neither democratic nor representative of the Indian masses to whom Britain owed a “duty and trust…. No one can pretend that this draft of a constitution is based upon any democratic conception, or that the Indian Executive and Assembly will in any way represent the masses of India. These masses will be delivered to the mercies of a well-organised, narrowly elected, political and religious oligarchy and caucus. Those 300 milllion people who are our duty and trust are often forgotten in these political discussions.
Churchill concluded with a metaphor drawn from the Titanic disaster: “The great liner is sinking in a calm sea. One bulkhead after another gives way; one compartment after another is bilged; the list increases; she is sinking; but the captain and the officers and the crew are all in the saloon dancing to the jazz band. But wait till the passengers find out what is their position!…. then I think there will be a sharp awakening, then, I am sure, that a reaction of the most vehement character will sweep this country and its unmeasured strength will once more be used. That, Sir, is an ending which I trust and pray we may avoid, but it is an ending to which step by step and day by day, we are being remorselessly and fatuously conducted.”
The next day, Churchill resigned from what had effectively been the Tory Shadow Cabinet, writing to Stanley Baldwin: “Now that our divergences of view upon Indian policy have become public, I feel that I ought not any longer to attend the meetings of your ‘Business Committee’ to which you have hitherto so kindly invited me. I hope and believe that sincere and inevitable differences upon policy will not affect the feelings of friendship which have grown up between us during the last six years. I need scarcely add that I will give you whatever aid is in my power in opposing the Socialist Government in the House of Commons, and I shall do my utmost to secure their defeat at the general election.”
Mr. Baldwin replied a day later: “I am grateful to you for your kind letter of yesterday and much as I regret your decision not to attend the meetings of your old colleagues, I am convinced that your decision is correct in the circumstances…. Our friendship is now too deeply rooted to be affected by differences of opinion whether temporary or permanent. We have fought together through testing times: we have learnt to appreciate each other’s good qualities and to be kindly indulgent to qualities less good, if indeed they exist …”
50 YEARS AGO
Winter 1955-56 • Age 81
“He kissed my hand!”
After Christmas with his family at Chartwell, Churchill headed for the south of France to stay with Emery Reves at his villa, La Pausa, which had been built for Coco Chanel in the 1920s. Clementine ill and remained in England.
On 16 January 1956, Aristotle Onassis came to dinner and Churchill wrote about it in a letter to his wife the next day: “All the children go home today by one route or another, Arabella & Celia were both vy sweet to me. Diana will give you accounts. She seems vy well & mistress of herself. Randolph brought Onassis (the man with the big yacht) to dinner last night. He made a good impression upon me. He is a vy able and masterful man & told me a lot about whales. He kissed my hand!”
On 29 January, Clementine wrote to her husband of a luncheon she had with his first love, Pamela Lytton, née Plowden: “Your Pamela has just been to luncheon with me, looking exquisite & pretty in spite of her intense pain–We exchanged the names of our drugs & I have put her on to demanding pethidine from her doctor–I, for my part, am going to explore one of her pains killers.”
Churchill spent January revising the second volume of his History of the English-Speaking Peoples. He returned to England on 10 February and saw Clementine off on a voyage to Ceylon, from which she wrote on 5 March: “We have just been to the Zoo which is said to be the most beautiful in the world–the animals are glossy & well kept & it is a bower of flowers–The Elephants are of all sizes down to babies 30 inches high which are fed on a bottle.” Churchill replied: “I am vy glad that the ‘Zoo’ is so attractive, but I think it wd be better not, repeat NOT, to bring more than three 30 inch elephants to Chartwell!”