Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Action This Day – Winter 1983-84, 1908-09, 1933-34
125 YEARS AGO:
Winter 1883-84 • Age 9
“Rather greedy at meals…”
On 5 December, 1883, Winston wrote to his father with news of school: “We had gymnastic trials yesterday. I got 39 marks out of 90. I beat some of the boys in two classes above me. The play room is getting ready for concert we are learning to sing for it. It is about 75 feet long and 20 broad and lighted by 920 cp [candlepower] lamps it will show a very bright light wont it.”
During the first term of 1884 at St. George’s, Churchill was beginning to improve his marks, especially in mathematics. French was not so good: “Fair— does not learn the grammar with sufficient care.” History and geography were better but not always: “Very erratic— sometimes exceedingly good.” The overall report from his Headmaster was underwhelming, if not ad hominem: “He is, I hope, beginning to realize that school means work and discipline. He is rather greedy at meals.”
Winston did not react well to authority at St. George’s and we know from his autobiography My Early Life that he detested the canings, which eventually led his mother to remove him from the school. We do not know precisely at what age Churchill created the following legend at St. George’s, recounted by Maurice Baring in a 1922 memoir:
Dreadful legends were told about Winston Churchill, who had been taken away from the school. His naughtiness appeared to have surpassed anything. He had been flogged for taking sugar from the pantry, and so far from being penitent, he had taken the Headmaster’s sacred straw hat from where it hung over the door and kicked it to pieces. His sojourn at this school had been one long feud with authority. The boys did not seem to sympathise with him. Their point of view was conventional and priggish.
100 YEARS AGO:
Winter 1908-09 • Age 34
“Gigantic dodge to cheat the poor”
As President of the Board of Trade, Churchill had much to say about the economic crisis which—like the 2008 version—began in the U.S. and quickly spread throughout the world. Credit became scarce. Churchill believed that Great Britain handled the panic better than its commercial competitors, the United States and Germany. In a speech to the Leicester Chamber of Commerce on 14 January, 1909, he said:
The public at large is, I think, inclined to take too gloomy a view of the general situation at the present moment. A reaction in the volume of trade always follows years of abnormal activity, and what is happening now is no more that what was foreseen by many who were best able to judge. In the other great commercial countries of the world, in the United States and in Germany, the reaction has been in many respects more marked than it has been with us, and in those countries, in the United States especially, it has entailed a severe financial crisis. Here in England at the end of 1907 there were high rates of money, but there was no sign of panic, no breakdown in credit. Commerce was not denied its usual accommodation, and I do not think any bank restricted its loans to the legitimate trader who had good security to offer. When we remember that in the United States at the close of 1907 there was practically a general suspension of specie payment, and that in Germany in the beginning of 1908 the monetary stringency and pressure were so great that—so I am informed—credits were very largely withdrawn from the commercial enterprise of the country, I think we are entitled to derive considerable satisfaction from the evidences of financial strength and stability which Great Britain has very notably displayed.
A general election was thought less than a year away. Churchill was often on the attack against the Conservative Party for their “Tariff Reform” proposals which were, in fact, protectionist tax increases by any other name—a fact Churchill was only too happy to draw to the public’s attention. As he said at a political meeting in Nottingham on 29 January 1909:
If the Conservative party win the election, they have made it perfectly clear that it is their intention to impose a complete protective tariff, and to raise the money for ambitious armaments and colonial projects by taxing the poor. They have declared, with a frankness which is at any rate remarkable, that they will immediately proceed to put a tax on bread, a tax on meat, a tax on timber, and an innumerable schedule of taxes on all unmanufactured articles imported into the United Kingdom; that is to say that they will take by all these taxes a large sum of money from the pockets of the wage-earners by making them pay more for the food they eat, the houses they live in, and the comforts and conveniences which they require in their homes; and that a great part of this large sum of money will be divided between the landlords and the manufacturers in the shape of increased profits, and even that part of it which does reach the Exchequer is to be given back to these same classes in the shape of reductions in income tax and in direct taxation. Do not allow yourself to be drawn from this plain view of what is called the Tariff “Reform” movement by ingenious sophistries which have often been exposed, by appeals to sentiment of a cheap and false character, or by delusions about taxing the foreigner. (Cheers.) Such treacle is scarcely fit to catch flies with (laughter)—and if you face the policy with which we are now threatened by the Conservative party fairly and searchingly, you will see that, stripped of its disguises and stripped of its ornaments, it is nothing less than a deliberate attempt on the part of important sections of the propertied classes to transfer their existing burdens to the shoulders of the masses of the people, and to gain greater profits for the investment of their capital by charging higher prices. (Cheers.)
Churchill took delight all his life in using ridicule to poke fun at opponents, but they tended not to enjoy it nearly as much as he did. Many of his victims accused him of engaging in what today in the United States would be called “negative attacks.” Here was Churchill’s reply to such sensitive feelings:
I must say I have never heard of a party which was in such a jumpy, nervous state as our opponents are at this present time. If one is led in the course of speaking, as I sometimes am (laugher and cheers), to speak a little firmly and bluntly about the Conservative Tariff “Reformers,” they become almost speechless with indignation. (Laughter.) They are always in a state of incipient political apoplexy, while as for the so-called Liberal Unionists, whenever they are criticized they run off whining and complain that it is unchivalrous to attack them while Mr. Chamberlain is disabled. (Laughter and cheers.) Sorry I am that he is out of the battle, not only on personal but on public grounds. His fiercest opponents would welcome his re-entry into the political arena, if only for the fact that we should then have a man to deal with and someone whose statement of the case for his side would be clear and bold, whose speeches would be worth reading and worth answering, instead of the melancholy marionettes whom the wire-pullers of the Tariff Reform League are accustomed to exhibit on provincial platforms. (Laughter.) But I hope you will not let these pretexts or complaints move you or prevent you from calling a spade a spade, a tax a tax, a protective tariff a gigantic dodge to cheat the poor….
The newlywed Churchills had been living in Winston’s old, cramped quarters at 12 Bolton Street. The lease for that expired in February 1909 and they signed a new eighteen-year lease for 33 Eccleston Square. They promptly began renovations which included lots of book-cases, Winston writing in a letter to Clementine that “All the bookcases are in position (I have ordered two more for the side window of the alcove).
75 YEARS AGO:
Winter 1933-34 • Age 59
“A new situation has been created”
As winter approached, the Nazi party had obtained an iron grip on Germany in an astonishingly short period. As Martin Gilbert wrote in Volume V of the Official Biography: “By mid-November in Germany, there were at least 100,000 opponents of the Nazi regime in concentration camps, and more than 50,000 Germans had fled abroad in search of refuge. On 12 November a General Election was held at which only the Nazi Party was allowed to canvass, with the result that it secured 95% of the vote.
Churchill addressed the dire implications of this in a speech on defense in the Commons on 7 February, 1934:
I remember in the days of the late Conservative Administration…that we thought it right to take as a rule of guidance that there would be no major war within ten years in which we should be engaged….No one could take that principle as a guide today. I am quite certain that [no] Cabinet…however pacific and peace-loving could possibly arrange the basis of their naval and military organisation upon such an assumption as that. A new situation has been created, largely, I fear…by the sudden uprush of Nazism in Germany, with the tremendous covert armaments which are proceeding there today….We are vulnerable as we have never been before.
Churchill returned to the subject on 8 March 1934, lamenting that the government was proposing to spend only an extra £130,000 in its attempt to achieve air parity:
It is not to be disputed that we are in a dangerous position today. This is a very good White Paper. The opening paragraph sets forth a most admirable declaration, but what is there behind it? £130,000. Very fine words. It must have taken the Cabinet a long time to agree to them—with the Air Minister drafting them and passing them round. They give great paper satisfaction. But what is there behind them? £130,000. It is not the slightest use of concealing the facts….We are only half the strength of France, our nearest neighbour. Germany is arming fast, and no one is going to stop her. That seems quite clear. No one proposes a preventive war to stop Germany breaking the Treaty of Versailles. She is going to arm, she is doing it, she has been doing it. I have not any knowledge of the details, but people are well aware that those very gifted people, with their science and with their factories, with what they call their “Air Sport,” are capable of developing with great rapidity a most powerful air force for all purposes, offensive and defensive, within a very short period of time.
Churchill’s speech took on its most ominous tone when he added that Germany was now controlled by “a handful of autocrats who are the absolute masters of that gifted nation…”;
I dread the day when the means of threatening the heart of the British Empire should pass into the hands of the present rulers of Germany. I think we should be in a position which would be odious to every man who values freedom of action and independence, and also in a position of the utmost peril for our crowded, peaceful population, engaged in their daily toil. I dread that day, but it is not, perhaps, far distant. It is, perhaps, only a year, or perhaps eighteen months, distant. Not come yet—at least, so I believe, or I hope and pray. But it is not far distant. There is still time for us to take the necessary measures, but it is the measures we want. Not this paragraph in this White Paper; we want the measures. It is no good writing that first paragraph and then producing £130,000. We want the measures to achieve parity.