May 6, 2013

IN THIS ISSUE: FINEST HOUR 146, SPRING 2010

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Churchill thought deeply about politics and political movements from Bolshevism to Fascism, dictatorship to democracy. He formulated precepts for political conduct; he considered how politics affected “civilization,” by which he included the Welfare State he helped to organize. He thought the State should alleviate poverty and provide security through “discipline, organization and relief.” But he resisted nationalization of industry and redistribution of wealth advocated by socialists.

The breadth of his political thought would surprise many who visualize him as a reactionary. Early on, for example, he argued for taxing land rather than earnings.[1] After the Great War and the Depression, reformers of the Left shifted to massive state intervention and benefits. Here they lost Churchill, who regarded socialism as “the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.”[2]

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His “Gestapo speech,” suggesting that a Labour government would fall back on something like Hitler’s Geheime Staatspolizei to enforce their programs, helped his Conservatives lose the 1945 election. Yet, though he said hard things about the Labour Party, he believed in coalitions when possible, and courtesy on and off the floor. He was deeply grateful for Labour’s support in Britain’s darkest hour, feeling emotional loyalty toward leaders like Attlee and Bevin, and genuine sorrow when they left the wartime coalition in May 1945.

Churchill favoured light taxation, allowing money “to fructify in the pockets of the people, as they used to say in my young days.”[3] Once a “minimum standard” was guaranteed by the State, he thought citizens should be free to pursue their own interests, according to their lights and talents. The impression he leaves is of a politician occupying the “middle,” but not exactly a “moderate,” for he had firm opinions. He sought a medium between the extremes of Left and Right, relying upon democracy to ensure equality and a decent life for all. A patrician, but not a snob, he enjoyed luxuries, but favored taxing them; though he faulted democracy—as in his “Lost Glory” article on page 12 of this issue—he always respected the “little man.”

Churchill’s years as a crusader for social change are almost forgotten. His remarks on the status of women confound critics who think he wished to deny them the vote. (See for example “Action This Day, 100 Years Ago,” page 30.) So often depicted as an enemy of labor— through myths about his actions during the Welsh coal miners’ strike of 1910 and the General Strike of 1926— he was in fact a strong proponent of trade unions. “I have been taught it all my public life, that the employers of this country are deeply thankful there is in existence a strong organised trade union movement with which they can deal, and which keeps its bargains and which moves along a controlled and suitable path of policy.”[4]

The political writer Joe Klein recently reminded us of Churchill without mentioning him. Klein was asked how we can measure the worth of political leaders. Listen to what they say, he replied. If there is not a single statement in their remarks that is not unpleasant to hear, you know they are unprincipled: empty suits relying on polls and focus groups in a quest for power.[5]

Klein thus defined a chief attribute of Churchill— the willingness to say, not what people wanted to hear, but what he thought they should hear. His maxims were employed to that end with devastating effectiveness. Churchill was consistent, even when his party was not. Michael Mink explains: “…his two changes of party from Conservative to Liberal and back again, his egotism and his independence of spirit at all times led orthodox politicians to mistrust him and his judgment. Not until he was in his mid-60s did a crisis arise in which party politics were irrelevant and his greatest qualities could be demonstrated and recognized.”[6]

Many subjects that occupied Churchill’s mind are familiar to us today: the child tax credit, collective bargaining, elections fought over foreign policy, immigration, legislative cure-alls, media defeatism, the minimum wage, the national debt, outsourcing, protestors, women’s rights. Perhaps they went by different terms in Churchill’s day, but they occupied his thoughts. And his opinions are rarely uninteresting. —The Editor

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ENDNOTES

1. See “Henry George and Churchill’s Lost Opportunity,” Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008, 58.

2. Perth, Scotland, 28 May 1948. Churchill, Europe Unite (London: Cassell, 1950), 347.

3. Hawkey Hall, Woodford, Essex, 20 March 1959. Churchill, The Unwritten Alliance (London: Cassell, 1961), 312.

4. Broadcast, London, 27 March 1941. Churchill, The Unrelenting Struggle (London: Cassell, 1942), 71.

5. Joe Klein, Politics Lost: How American Democracy was Trivialized by People Who Think You’re Stupid (New York: Doubleday, 2006).

6. Michael Mink, “Winston Churchill’s Uphill War,” Investor’s Business Daily, 30 August 2007. 

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