July 2, 2013



A Professor of British Government at the University of Leeds, England, Kevin Theakston is the author of the seminal Winston Churchill and the British Constitution (Politico’s, 264 pp.), which was reviewed in Finest Hour 124:45-


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It would be easy to go through Winston Churchill’s voluminous canon and pick out a range of quotations depicting him as an apparently fervent and uncritical admirer of the British constitution. The House of Commons, for instance, he once described as “the shrine of the world’s liberties”; “the home and citadel of free government.” Britain had “the strongest” and also “the oldest, the least unwise and the most democratic parliament in the world.”1 The British system of constitutional monarchy was the “ancient and glorious institution” that “renders inestimable services to our country.”2

One can even find Churchill praising the civil service for “maintaining the continuity of government.” (“Reckless ministers are protected against themselves,” he once wrote with grudging admiration; “violent ministers are tamed, timid ministers are supported and nursed.”)3 “If. ..every country gets the form of government it deserves,” he told MPs in May 1945, “we may certainly flatter ourselves. The wisdom of our ancestors has led us to an envied and enviable situation.'”4

A self-congratulatory tone was perhaps understandable after victory over Hitler, but even at a low point in his career—as when shaken by electoral defeat at Dundee in 1922—Churchill could praise the British system of government for providing “the fullest method and opportunity by which popular wishes, however capricious, however passionate, however precipitate, might be given full effect to.” He had been all his life, he said, “a sincere believer in democratic and parliamentary processes by representative government, and in the procedure of the British Constitution.”5 There is force in Peter Hennessy’s description of Churchill as “the greatest romantic of all about British constitutional practice.”6


Yet Churchill was often far from an unthinking and complacent defender of the constitutional status quo. He was a vocal and radical critic of the House of Lords and a champion of “the people’s rights” during the Liberal Party’s pre-World War I constitutional struggle with the peers. He violently denounced the House of Lords as “one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible, absentee”; it was “not a national institution, but a party dodge,” a “lingering relic of the feudal order,” filled with “old doddering peers, cute financial magnates, clever wire pullers, big brewers with bulbous noses…all the enemies of progress.” In a Cabinet memorandum in February 1910 he declared: “The time has come for the total abolition of the House of Lords.”‘7

He could be scathing about the Commons, too, complaining between the wars that it was letting power slip from its hands, and of a decline in the quality of parliamentarians and their debates. In the Thirties he argued that it had degenerated into “an organised voting machine,” full of “tame, docile, subservient Members.”8

He had a long-term interest in the devolution of power, believing that British government was “much too centralised” and that Parliament suffered from “congestion” and was choked with a mass of detail. As early as 1901 he was toying with ideas about devolution to “provincial councils,” and in 1911-12 put forward a plan for the creation of ten regional and national assemblies—a “Home Rule All Round” scheme, mocked by Asquith as going back to the Heptarchy.9

Later, in the 1920s, Churchill could still be found arguing that the British system of government was “top-heavy” and that there was “a storey missing” in its structure.10 Moreover, for all the Churchillian talk of “trusting the people” and being in harmony with “the Gettysburg ideal,” he could seem a pretty reluctant and half-hearted democrat. The suffragettes regarded him as an enemy; they broke up his political meetings and one even physically attacked him with a whip. “The truth is we already have enough ignorant voters and we don’t want any more,” Churchill remarked about franchise reform plans in 1912. When the franchise was extended in 1918 he believed that “a whole mob of the worst class of voters was embraced.”11

In the 1930s in particular he argued for checks and balances to counteract universal suffrage, claiming that Britain had gone “too far” and “too fast” down the democratic road, and talking of the need to “retrace our steps.” His concerns then were about the dangers of “constitutional decay,” of the absence of constitutional safeguards, and the need for “more bone and structure in our parliamentary system.”12 This is not Churchill the constitutional romantic, but Churchill the would-be constitutional reformer—and Churchill as the critic, not the champion, of parliamentary democracy.


Churchill was a democrat, but with qualifications and reservations. He always emphasised that British government was based on representative, not direct, democracy. Parliament, rather than elections, had the primary place in Churchill’s democratic order. Elections exist for the sake of the House of Commons and not the other way round, he once said, and he described himself revealingly as a servant of the House of Commons, not a servant of the people. In 1911 he denounced the referendum as a dangerous device and subversive of parliamentary government, although on a number of occasions he toyed with or opportunistically proposed referenda as ways of getting off the hook or defusing particular political issues or problems (including the female franchise in 1911-12, protective tariffs in 1930, and the continuation of the wartime coalition in 1945).

He never claimed that democracy was “perfect or all-wise.” He famously remarked, quoting someone else, that “democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Democracy, he used to muse while prime minister after 1951, was “an appalling muddle, riddled with faults, dangers, unfairness and contradictions.”13

Churchill had an aristocratic view of democracy, politics and society. Violet Bonham Carter once described him as “a democrat to the bone, imbued with a deep reverence for Parliament and a strong sense of human rights.” But, she commented, whereas Lloyd George was “saturated with class-consciousness,” Churchill “accepted class distinction without thought.” “I am all for the social order,” Lucy Masterman quoted Churchill as declaring in 1909, when he was a radical, social reforming Liberal minister; later she wrote of him “praising government by aristocracy and revealing the aboriginal and unchangeable Tory in him.”14

Before the First World War, Churchill did not think the British system less democratic because no women and not all men had the vote. He supported only a slow “levelling up” approach to franchise reform, new working class voters being incorporated into and supporting the British Constitution in a democratic system that was marked by both hierarchy and deference. “Democracy properly understood means the association of all through the leadership of the best,” was Churchill’s definition in 1909—that he saw himself as one of those fitted to lead went without saying.15

Democratic leaders and governments should not be slaves to public opinion, Churchill believed. It was sometimes necessary for them to stand firm against public outcries and passions. “People who are not prepared to do unpopular things and to defy clamour are not fit to be Ministers in times of stress,” he wrote in his World War II memoirs. The statesman should have “his eyes on the stars rather than his ears on the ground,” he once said. 16 He was clear-sighted and tough-minded about upholding the authority of Parliament and the state, whether against militant suffragettes, striking workers, or rebellious Irishmen or Ulstermen.


All the same, Churchill was very clearly and strongly committed to individual liberty and the protection of individual rights against the state. He liked to say that the nations of the world could be divided into two groups: those in which the government owned the people, and those in which the people owned the government. “To abuse the Government,” he once declared, was “an inalienable right of every British subject.” Britain had no constitutionally-enacted formal bill of democratic rights and freedoms was Parliament. The idea that the law lords might start acting like the U.S. Supreme Court and be able to strike down an Act of
Parliament, declaring it invalid, illegal or unconstitutional, he found unimaginable.

He stood for the traditional doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty: parliament made the law, and judges and the courts were bound by it. This meant that the ultimate “constitutional remedy” for a disgruntled minority lay through parliamentary and electoral politics:”They should obey the law. If they dislike the law…let them agitate for a majority when an election comes, and then, if they choose, they can amend or…repeal a law against which the country would then have pronounced.”18

This was the only course legitimately open to the Ulster Protestants opposed to Irish Home Rule in 1914, Churchill insisted—which was a perfectly correct view of their constitutional position, but which ignored the issue of the rights of a minority in the face of what it sees and experiences as a parliamentary majority steam-rollering over it. He did not in fact pose the uncircumscribed nature of parliamentary sovereignty under the British constitution as a potential problem for rights and for minorities in the way that a later generation did (as with talk in the 1970s and after of “elective dictatorship”).

In the inter-war period, Churchill came to be widely regarded as a reactionary figure and was critical of many aspects of parliamentary democracy. However, there are good grounds for arguing that his underlying political opinions and commitment to democracy remained basically the same, and that what changed was the wider political context (domestic and international) in which he and other politicians had to function. Democracy was precarious, Churchill suggested, and its preservation and operation posed difficult problems of statesmanship, but he did not question its worth or value. Across the British political spectrum there were concerns about the sort of politics produced by the new mass electorate after 1918, worries about the future of democracy, and dissatisfaction with the traditional institutions and processes of representative government.

Churchill was no isolated figure in voicing uncertainties and doubts about the nature and the health of representative democracy in the 1920s and 1930s. He believed basically in the nineteenth century Liberal model of the constitution, emphasising parliamentary sovereignty, ministerial responsibility and the rule of law. The division of power and checks and balances in the constitution were other key themes of his, and many of the institutional reforms he favoured would have built in additional checks and constraints on the power of the central executive and limited the power of an electoral majority as expressed through the House of Commons.

When in the 1930s he appeared to be “deeply alienated from the democratic process” (as David Cannadine puts it), he was still adhering to the Liberal view of the constitution, accepting it as an idealised model, complaining that contemporary practice fell short, and proposing franchise and other changes to try to make political practice better correspond to Liberal democratic-constitutional principles (looking for a more engaged and better-informed electorate, for instance). It may have seemed reactionary, but it can be argued that he actually wanted “both to maintain and to improve the existing framework of Parliamentary democracy,” as Sir Martin Gilbert says.19

Churchill’s view of the development of the British constitution was coloured by his romantic understanding of British history in general, something which profoundly influenced his whole political outlook and thinking. Like others of his class and generation, he saw British (or more properly, English) history in Whiggish terms, marked by the slow but sure development of liberty and freedom, parliamentary government, constitutional monarchy, the rule of law, and the eventual growth of democracy.

The story was one of prosperity, progress and English political genius at home, under the leadership of a small but able aristocratic ruling class, and of the defeat of foreign rivals and tyrants beyond these shores and the growth of Empire. Churchill’s pride in the British constitution is rooted in this sense of Britain as a great power and British history as a providential saga. At times Churchill suggested that “Almighty God” was behind the growth of Britain’s power and its institutions.20 Britain was certainly a beacon of, and set a defining standard for, democratic governance.


Churchill was to emphasise the connections between British and American democracy from the 1930s onwards, making great play of Americas English legal and constitutional heritage. He commented in 1947 that “the American Constitution, with its checks and counter-checks, combined with its frequent appeals to the people, embodied much of the ancient wisdom of this island.” In old age he would praise the U.S. constitution as “one of the finest political documents” (“no constitution was ever written in better English”), but he told an American visitor in 1961 that “our parliamentary system of Government is a cut ahead of yours.”21

Churchill preferred the unwritten British constitution with its “store of traditions and precedents” to the written American constitution. The latter, he argued, “enshrined long-standing English ideas of justice and liberty”; it was based on “Old English doctrine, freshly formulated to meet an urgent American need.” He was prepared to admit that a “fixed constitution” could be a “bulwark” rather than a “fetter.” The “rigidity” of the Constitution of the United States, enforced by the Supreme Court, was “the shield of the common man.” But he maintained that “a written constitution carries with it the danger of a cramping rigidity. What body of men, however far-sighted, can lay down precepts in advance for settling the problems of future generations?”22 He was concerned about the potential for constitutional deadlock in the U.S. system. To be workable, constitutions had to have a certain dynamic, rather than brittle, quality.


Although in the mid-1930s Churchill argued that “we need more structure in our system,” and that “there ought to be some very much stronger security against violent change in the fundamental laws of our state and society,” he clearly envisaged specific institutional reforms (of the electoral system, parliament, etc.) rather than the adoption of a written constitution.23

Churchill would sometimes quote Napoleon to the effect that a constitution should be short and obscure. The British Constitution was certainly flexible and, as he said in 1905, was marked by a “generous vagueness.”24 It was in other words a political constitution, shaped by political circumstances and adaptable to changing political needs. Churchill himself could exploit this make-it-up-as-you-go-along character of the constitution, as in 1940 when, without any legal backing, he called himself Minister of Defence (as well as becoming Prime Minister) in order to take on supreme authority to direct the war effort. But he was strongly conscious also that it was a historical constitution, growing out of “the wisdom of our ancestors” and “the practice of former
times,” as he put it.

Human societies and institutions are not mechanical structures but organic (“plants that grow”), he believed. Systems of government express and grow out of and through a country’s and a community’s history, culture and traditions. Thus to say that “the British constitution was mainly British common sense,” as he did in 1908, was actually to affirm its reality and strength. Remarks he made in the late 1940s about European constitution-mongering have a wider relevance, criticising as he did “laboured attempts to draw [up] rigid structures or constitutions,” and deprecating involvement “in all the tangles and intricacies of rigid constitution-making, which appeals so strongly to a certain type of mind.”25

Churchill’s sense of the British constitution drew upon themes and ideas that can be traced back to Burke, Macaulay and Bagehot. Like Burke, he emphasised the importance of historical continuity, inheritance, adaptation and preservation in the political system and political community. Like Macaulay, he believed that British history demonstrated that the constitution could peacefully assimilate and adapt to change while preserving its forms and traditions. The relationship between the different elements of the constitution might change over time, but the integrity of the structure would not be compromised. And like Bagehot, he understood the stabilising and constraining functions of custom, tradition, ceremony and the theatrical aspects of the constitution—all helping the British constitution to absorb change.

“It is a great pity to change things simply for the sake of changing, or out of a desire to arrive at unnatural symmetry,” he told the Cabinet Secretary in wartime exchanges about proposals for Whitehall reform. “Tradition must not be flouted on behalf of logic,” was his response when someone proposed making the titles of two ministerial posts more descriptive.26

Similarly, in relation to Parliament, he was adamant that “logic is a poor guide compared with custom.” In 1934 he warned that it was vital that procedural changes designed to bring about “any slight gain in efficiency” did not undermine or have too large a cost in terms of “Parliamentary custom and tradition.”27 When it was destroyed by enemy bombing during World War II, Churchill insisted on having the House of Commons chamber rebuilt and restored in all essentials to its old form, arguing that its distinctive shape was a fundamental feature of the British system of party and parliamentary politics.

Nevertheless, as Paul Addison has noted, “Churchill enjoyed constitution making.”28 But while ingenious, his many reform ideas had only a limited impact on the actual changes that occurred in practice. As a Cabinet minister under Asquith before 1914 and Baldwin in the 1920s, Churchill’s big ideas for constitutional reform were usually beaten down by his ministerial colleagues or ran into the sands. More significant constitutional changes occurred under Lloyd George’s leadership than under Churchill’s (extension of the franchise and votes for women; modernisation of Whitehall with the creation of the Cabinet Secretariat, new ministries and the reorganisation of the civil service).


In trying to understand Churchill’s thinking about or commitment to particular ideas or schemes, one must always be aware of (and therefore cautious about) his character and style as a rhetorical politician. Close colleagues noted “the tendency in him to see first the rhetorical potentialities of any policy.”29 What is striking, however, is the way in which on issues like House of Lords reform and Home Rule for Ireland, in the Liberal years before 1914, Churchill was at times pretty unrestrained in public, but in private and behind the scenes was often much more moderate, constructive or bipartisan. On the “peers versus the people” controversy in particular, Churchill sounded much more radical than he really was.

It cannot be claimed that on the big constitutional questions Churchill took up strikingly original positions. Ideas about federalism, “Home Rule All Round,” and the devolution of power to tackle overload at Westminster, had been discussed in British politics for thirty or more years before Churchill arrived on the scene and took them up, for instance. Similarly, in the 1920s and 1930s, ideas for reform of parliamentary and government machinery were being widely canvassed across the political spectrum and Churchill’s own proposal for an “Economic Sub-Parliament” was not particularly novel.30

What Piers Brendon has called Churchill’s “flair for exploiting each major political issue as it arose and matching his ambition to the hour” should not be underestimated. But that does not mean that he was completely “opportunistic and unprincipled,” as has sometimes been claimed, for instance, in relation to his stance over Irish Home Rule. His admission that in order to “strengthen myself with my party, I mingled actively in the Irish controversy” is widely quoted. But this comment actually only refers to the events of 1914, when his position within the Liberal Party and the Cabinet was weak, and he seems to have charged into the Irish situation with his violent speech at Bradford about facing down Ulster’s resistance in order to improve his party standing.31

To interpret Churchill’s stance on Home Rule solely in terms of his struggle to advance his personal ambitions and his political career is to go too far. Churchill seems to have been genuinely interested in ideas of devolution, provincial councils and federalism in one form or another not just during the controversy over the Liberals’ Home Rule policy, but both before (in 1901-05) and afterwards (in the 1920s). And he took many political risks inside the government and with his own party on the Irish issue, particularly by arguing strongly and early for special treatment for, or the exclusion of, Ulster— hardly something calculated to win him political points.

Churchill necessarily adapted to changing circumstances. With the Irish issue removed from British politics after the early 1920s, the steam largely went out of the devolution issue and it became apparent that there was little support for political nationalism in Scotland and Wales. By the 1950s Churchill had dropped his earlier idea for separate parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff. His support for federalism or devolution cannot be explained simply in terms of his changing party identity, however, for his first ideas about this had been expressed in 1901 when he was a Conservative, he then came to strongly support it under Asquith as a Liberal Cabinet Minister, and he was still flirting with the idea in 1925 and in 1931 after “re-ratting” back to the Conservatives.

Similarly, in relation to the House of Lords, it is true that he was arguing as a Conservative in the 1920s for a “chamber of review” with the power to check the House of Commons with the “weapon of delay.” But as a Liberal, he had also penned Cabinet memos in 1910 stressing the need for a revising chamber able to impose “the potent safeguard of delay.” In both cases he wanted the Lords to be subordinate to the Commons, and both as a Liberal and a Conservative he supported reform of the composition of the Lords. While as a Conservative he talked of “strengthening” the Lords, he was not a reactionary and did not want to put the clock back to before the 1911 Parliament Act.32 In the 1930s, and later, he was more sympathetic to the case for electoral reform than many other Conservatives.


So, it is not easy to portray Churchill in simple terms as “radical” on constitutional issues in his Liberal days and “conservative” when he moved back to the Tories. In the 1920s and 1930s he was actively interested in constitutional reforms of one sort or another. As party leader and in “elder statesman” vein after 1945, he was still interested in certain issues (Lords reform and proportional representation, for instance), and in private still liked to try out ideas and bat about schemes which he was realistic enough to know stood no chance of being put into practice (such as “plural voting”).

By the end of his political career Churchill had almost become part of the constitution, he had been around for so long and his reputation was so high. Emanuel Shinwell called him (in 1964) “one of our greatest institutions: the Throne, the Church, Parliament, the Press and Sir Winston Churchill.”33 He had been actively involved in most of the big constitutional issues and arguments of the first half of the twentieth century. Through two world wars and other periods of great political and social stress and difficulty, he had maintained an unwavering commitment to the institutions and to the values of parliamentary democracy and constitutional government. A mixture of constitutional traditionalist and would-be reformer, he always understood—unlike some politicians and prime ministers, both in his time and later—the importance of the constitution, and of constitutional issues.


1. Paul Addison, “Destiny, history and providence: the religion of Winston Churchill” in Michael Bentley, ed., Public and Private Doctrine: Essays in British History Presented to Maurice Cowling (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 245; Robert Rhodes James, Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963 (8 vols., London: Chelsea House, 1974, hereafter cited as Complete Speeches), II, 1689; V, 4986.

2. Complete Speeches, VII, 7164, 7743.

3. Complete Speeches, III, 3217; Winston S. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill (2 vols., London: Macmillan, 1906), II, 180.

4. Complete Speeches, VII, 7165.

5. Tony Paterson, A Seat for Life (Dundee: David Winter & Son, 1980), 283.

6. Peter Hennessy, The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution (London: Indigo, 1995), 142.

7. Churchill distilled his barnstorming speeches on the “peers versus the people” battle into his 1909 book The People’s Rights (republished with an introduction by Cameron Hazlehurst, London: Jonathan Cape, 1970).

8. Complete Speeches, V, 5430; VI, 6082.

9. See Kevin Theakston, Winston Churchill and the British Constitution (London: Politico’s, 2004) ch. 3. Heptarchy is the name applied to the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of south, east and central England, circa A.D. 500-850.

10. Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill: Companion Volume 5, Part 1 (London: Heinemann 1979), 586.

11. Lord Riddell, More Pages from My Diary 1908-1914 (London: Country Life, 1934), p.51; Churchill to Ferguson, 25 April 1927, CHAR 22/183/4 (Churchill Archives Centre, Churchill College, Cambridge).

12. Winston S. Churchill, “Are Parliaments Obsolete?,” Pearson’s Magazine, June 1934.

13. Complete Speeches, VII, 7566; Anthony Montague Browne, Long Sunset: Memoirs of Winston Churchill’s Last Private Secretary (London: Cassell, 1995), 180.

14. Violet Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill As I Knew Him (paperback ed., London: Pan 1967), 102, 167, 205; Lucy Masterman, C.F.G. Masterman: A Biography (London: Kelley, 1939), 152, 165.

15. Complete Speeches, II, 1424.

16. Winston S. Churchill in Closing the Ring: Second World War, vol. V, quoted in Colin Coote, Sir Winston Churchill A Self-Portrait (London: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1954), 106; Manfred Weidhorn, A Harmony of Interests: Explorations in the Mind of Sir Winston Churchill (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992), 52.

17. Complete Speeches, IV, 3850; V, 4550.

18. Complete Speeches, III, 2224; VII, 7594.

19. David Cannadine, Aspects of Aristocracy (London: Yale University Press, 1995), 158; Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s Political Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981), 68.

20. Maurice Cowling, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), 299.

21. Complete Speeches, VII, 7565; VIII, 8486; Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill vol. 8 “Never Despair”1945-1965 (London: Heinemann 1988), 1327.

22. Winston S. Churchill, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, vol. Ill The Age of Revolution (London: Cassell, 1957), 208; “What Good’s a Constitution?” in Kay Halle (ed.), Winston Churchill on America and Britain (New York: Walker, 1970), 278-287.

23. Winston S. Churchill, “Whither Britain?,” The Listener, 17 January 1934.

24. House of Commons debates, 26 July 1905, cols. 363-4.

25. Hansard Society, Parliamentary Reform 1933-1960 (London: Cassell, 1961), 159; Kenneth W. Thompson, Winston Churchill’s World View: Statesmanship and Power (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 32-34.

26. Churchill to Bridges, 19 October 1942, National Archives (PRO), PREM 4/63/2; Manfred Weidhorn, Churchill’s Rhetoric and Political Discourse (Lanham, Md.:University Press of America, 1987), 48.

27. Complete Speeches, V, 5426.

28. Paul Addison, Churchill on the Home Front 1900-1955 (London: Pimlico, 1992), 271.

29. Lucy Masterman, op. cit., 128.

30. “Parliamentary Government and the Economic Problem,” in Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (London: Odhams 1947; originally published 1932), 172-183.

31. Piers Brendon, Winston Churchill: A Brief Life (London: Seeker & Warburg, 1984), 51; Ian Chambers, “Winston Churchill and Irish Home Rule, 1899-1914” in Parliamentary History, vol. 19, part 3, 407.

32. Kevin Theakston, op. cit., 43-54.

33. John Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his legend since 1945 (London: HarperCollins, 2002), 86. 


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