Finest Hour 153, Winter 2011-12
Wit and Wisdom – Churchill’s 1918 Yen to Nationalize
Reader Adrian Vaughan asked us if, just before the December 1918 general election, Churchill spoke at Dundee in favor of nationalising the railways—quite contrary to his furiou attacks on nationalisation during t post-World War II Labour govern We are indebted to Mr. Vaughan sending us on a diverting tour of Churchill’s canon.
An amusing subtext occurs in 1946, in debate following the Gracious Speech, in which WSC argued against nationalising the railways, and a Labour MP reminded him that he had been all for it back in 1918. Apparently things got quite raucous (Hansard’s word is “interruption.”) But Churchill wriggled easily off the hook.
At the end of World War I, both the railways and the coal mines were under State control. Railwaymen and miners were campaigning for nationalisation. Significantly, they formed two of the unions in the “triple alliance” of miners, railwaymen and transport workers. The alliance, which had first appeared in 1914 but lapsed during the war, was dedicated to the syndicalist method of “direct action” to coerce government and society. Its reestablishment in January 1919 greatly alarmed the government. It was in the government’s interest to drive a wedge between the railwaymen and the miners, and ministers were more inclined to make concessions to the railwaymen, whose leader, James H. Thomas, was a notorious “moderate,” much seen in the company of high society. From several cordial references to him in Churchill’s speeches we may infer that “Jimmy and “Winston” got on well together over the brandy and cigars.
During the 1918 general election, Churchill and a number of other ministers had pledged themselves to nationalize the railways. The Ways and Communications Bill of February 1919 actually included powers of State purchase. But in July 1919 Andrew Bonar Law, leader of the Conservative party, declared his opposition to railway nationalisation. Churchill’s protests were in vain, and the power to nationalise was dropped from the bill.
—PAUL ADDISON, CHURCHILL ON THE HOME FRONT 1900-1955 (LONDON: JONATHAN CAPE, 1992), 207.
On The Liberal Coalition
—LOCHEE, DUNDEE, 4 DECEMBER 1918.
Mr. Churchill [extract]: I greatly regret that we have not been able to go into the Coalition as a united Liberal party, but that really is not the fault of Mr. Lloyd George. We know how difficult things are and that cooperation is not in every case possible. Mr. Asquith (cheers) in his speech the last night at Edinburgh stated with absolute candour what the position is. He said he did not wish to join the government, but that he is willing to help. That is his position, and it is a thoroughly honourable position for him to take. 1 very much regret that Mr. Asquith is not occupying a great position in the State, but I am quite certain of this, that in the tasks before us his weight and influence will be of enormous assistance to the country as a whole in the solution of these difficult problems (cheers, and a voice: “He put you in the Navy!”).
As far as I am concerned I look forward with the utmost hopefulness to his sagacious and patriotic counsels on all occasions (cheers). I am under very deep obligations to Mr. Asquith….never will you hear from me any words derogatory of him or of the great service that he has rendered to the nation.
War Debt and Railways
—CHAMBER OF COMMERCE LUNCHEON, DUNDEE, 10 DECEMBER 1918.
Mr. Churchill [extract]: Our financial position begins to assume increasing gravity. We are burdened with an enormous debt. Six-sevenths of it we owe to ourselves. It presents difficulties, but difficulties which, at any rate, are within the boundaries of our own country, and can be adjusted without causing any impairing of its economic energy. We are heavily in debt to the United States. We are in debt to that country to the extent of nearly 400 millions of bullion. We have sent them something like 800 to 1000 millions’ worth of securities which we had gathered as the results of two generations of prosperous trade. The payment of the interest on that debt and the loss of the interest we have previously received will place upon our credit and productive energies a serious burden. We incurred the burden largely for our Allies and to give Russia some chance of striking a blow, but the churlish, treacherous Bolshevist desertion has inflicted injury upon us and ruin upon their own unhappy country. But we will face the difficulty with courage and manliness, and be all the stronger for the efforts imposed upon us.
We have got to do something on a bigger scale than ever. The three great parent factors are land, communications, and power, and the three children [are] food, housing, and manufacture. So long as the railways are in private hands they may be used for immediate profit. In the hands of the State, however, it may be wise or expedient to run them at a loss if they develop industry, place the trader in close contact with his market, and stimulate development.
You cannot organise the great questions of land settlement, new industries, and the extension of production unless the State has control of the means of transportation. But I cannot imagine any step so important as the taking over of the railways as a State concern being carried through except on the basis of honest and fair treatment of those to whose thrift and investment we owe this marvellous railway organisation.
Next to the railways comes power. If the capitalist system is to survive as the mainspring of every form of civilisation, it is essential that there should be just laws regulating the acquisition of wealth, that monopolies should be controlled in the general interest, that taxes be levied as far as possible in proportion to the ability to pay, that there should be effective discrimination between earned and unearned income, and, most important of all, that the great mass of toilers throughout the land should be assured of a decent minimum standard of life and labour.
Editor’s Note: Asked whether a commission of inquiry would be instituted before the railways were nationalised, Churchill said:
“I cannot say, but I think it highly improbable that action on this vital matter can be delayed until a Royal Commission has wandered about. A great mass of information is already available, and already a large portion of the task has automatically accomplished itself.”
—Complete Speeches, III 2646-48
HOUSE OF COMMONS, 12 NOVEMBER 1946— Debate on the King’s Address (“The Gracious Speech,” in fact a speech by the sovereign embodying the proposals of the party in power, in this case Labour.)
Mr. Churchill: It is very gratifying to hear the Ministers in the King’s Speech admitting their intention to break with their evil past and to go forward and endeavour to alleviate the lot of the housewife. But what is the substance behind these declarations? The change of heart is very good, but what are the acts and deeds by which it is to be accompanied? What is the first remedy for all these misfortunes and for all these difficulties? What is the first step of alleviation which we are promised in the Gracious Speech? It is the nationalisation of the railways and of inland transport.
Mr. Shurmer (Lab., Birmingham): You said that twenty years ago. Mr. Churchill: I am not going to pretend I see anything immoral in the nationalisation of the railways provided fair compensation is paid to the present owners. I professed myself, as the Hon. Gentleman has reminded the House, in favour of this policy in 1919, but what happened? [Interruption.]
Mr. W.J. Brown (Cons., Rugby): Hon. Members on the Government benches must not get so rattled.
Mr. Churchill: Sir Eric Geddes was placed in complete charge of the railways with all the facilities and power which would have accrued to a State-aided nationalised system. What happened? All that he produced in four years was a very bad service for the public, heavy loss to the shareholders, and the worst railway strike ever known except the one preceding the General Strike. I must admit that this practical experience of nationalisation—and we do learn by trial and error provided we profit by our experience—damped, I cannot say my usual, my early enthusiasm for this project.
—Winston S. Churchill, The Sinews of Peace: Post-War Speeches (London: Cassell, 1948), 241-42.
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