Finest Hour 189, Third Quarter 2020
By Gordon Brown
The Right Honourable Gordon Brown was Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Labour Party from 2007 to 2010. Prior to that he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer for ten years. He was educated at the University of Edinburgh and was Member of Parliament for Kirkcaldy and Crowdenbeath for thirty-two years.
So much has been written about every aspect of Winston Churchill’s life that it is surprising that one important area—his relationship with Scotland—has commanded so little attention. That is why it is important that this set of essays in Finest Hour starts to rectify this and rescues Churchill’s Scottish connections from the condescension of posterity.
Churchill’s wife Clementine was born of a Scottish family. His First World War regiment was Scottish. For fourteen years he served as a Scottish Member of Parliament. But there was a political reason why Churchill had no reason to love Scotland. After serving fourteen years from 1908 to 1922 as Member of Parliament for the jute city of Dundee, he was unceremoniously dumped by the East of Scotland electors. Humiliated—he came fourth in the poll—he never set foot in Dundee again and never again stood for a Scottish constituency. Irony of ironies, he was defeated in 1922 in the two-member constituency by a prohibitionist—unsurprisingly, Churchill defended the liquor trade—and by a pacifist. Faced with what he later called “the Order of the Boot,” he found little sympathy—only scorn. “What is the use of a WC without a seat?” one critic joked.
His Dundee sojourn, and particularly his last visit to the city, tells us much about the pre-1940 Churchill. Courageous to a fault, he braved ill health—he had just suffered appendicitis and hostile audiences, some 5,000 strong, and the jeers and the taunts of his opponents—when fighting in that election of 1922 for his political life.
His risk-taking was well known: in the year between his disastrous period heading the Admiralty, when he was blamed for the Gallipoli fiasco, and returning as Minister of Munitions in 1917, he chose, while still a sitting MP, to volunteer for military service, serving as Lieutenant Colonel with the 6th Battalion Royal Scots Fusiliers and fighting on the front line in Belgium.
Churchill had been bold, and perhaps opportunistic too, in his promises to the people of Dundee. When elected first in 1908, he espoused an agenda that was far more radical than Asquith, his Prime Minister, or his Chancellor Lloyd George: championing labour exchanges, unemployment insurance, health insurance, public works to mop up unemployment, and even public ownership of the railways. He was prepared to be radical and forward-looking too on the constitution. In 1913, at the height of Irish home rule agitation, he promised Scottish home rule would follow: “I will run the risk of prophecy and tell you that the day will most certainly come—many of you will live to see it—when a federal system will be established in these Islands which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs.”
But Churchill was also foolhardy, even to the point of utter recklessness—a trait that, to their great credit, Martin Gilbert and Paul Addison, who both deserve to be remembered for their genius as historians, bring out in their brilliant books about Churchill.
While fortunate to be offered the Dundee constituency only a few days after he had lost his own English seat in a by-election, Churchill nevertheless took Dundee’s support for granted, telling his mother at the outset, “It is a life seat and cheap and easy beyond all experience.”
And so, like Asquith who was his next-door neighbour in East Fife (Asquith was thrown out by his Scottish constituents in 1918), Churchill seldom visited the city, nor did he identify much with the jute workers, whose working conditions were so poor and their security of employment so tenuous that they needed someone to speak in Westminster on their behalf.
It was a measure of how too often Churchill threw caution to the winds that he managed to alienate just about every pressure group in the city: the Suffragettes, the trades unions, and the local business community, including the most important local families. In particular, he fell out with the owner of the two Dundee papers, the Courier and the Advertiser— one supported the Conservatives and the other the Liberals—and he did it not just once but on a number of occasions, as hitherto unpublished correspondence between the two makes clear. D. C. Thomson, who, along with his elder brother William, owned the Conservative-leaning Dundee Courier, acquired the other paper when William married the daughter of the owner of the Liberal Dundee Advertiser.
With Lloyd George’s approval, Churchill offered to sell D. C. Thomson an honour. Lloyd George’s charges for honours ranged from £10,000 (£350,000 today) for a knighthood to £40,000 (£1.23 million today) for a peerage. Then, when this was rebuffed, to the newspaper owner’s great credit, Churchill went on to the attack, criticising the newspaper’s coverage and even threatening to set up a rival local newspaper.
Lambasting Churchill for his threats, Thomson got the better of the correspondence, replying, “…Any fool of a politician can make a public personal attack on newspaper people at any time, but he can’t make it a controversy. Nor can he scare newspaper people….To be quite candid, if you wish to discuss anything with me on friendly lines, cut out all this threat nonsense, and let us discuss matters man to man and from the point of view of the welfare of the people. That is the basis of my policy, and a policy founded on that basis is the only policy worth discussing.”
Churchill did not relent and instead went public with his criticisms. At a rowdy meeting in Broughty Ferry just before election day in 1922, he lambasted Thomson for being “very double faced”: “You have a Liberal and Conservative newspaper owned by the same man and produced from the same office on the same day. Here is one man, Mr Thomson, selling Liberal opinions with his left hand and Conservative opinions with his right hand….” This from the politician who had gone back and forth himself between the Liberal and Conservative parties!
As his diminished vote revealed, Dundee had fallen out with Churchill, just as Churchill had fallen out with Dundee. Of course, Churchill visited Scotland many times after 1922—as Prime Minister, leader of the opposition, and as an ordinary politician—but never Dundee.
Even in wartime, Churchill’s visits demonstrated the same combination of bravery and recklessness. In January 1941, against doctors’ orders, he made a famous visit to Scapa Flow, taking with him Americans close to President Roosevelt in order to persuade them of Britain’s resolve to win the war and of the Royal Navy’s strength, but also of its need for US support. He wanted to show off by personally firing the first of a new set of anti-aircraft missiles. He wanted the Americans, he said, “to see the might, majesty, dominion and power of the British Empire…and how if anything happened to these ships the whole future of the world might be changed.”
Two months later, Clydebank was bombed by the Luftwaffe, and thousands were killed. But while Churchill visited Coventry after its bombing and visited east London regularly when it was bombed, he did not venture forth to Scotland, nor did the Government let it be known publicly that such a big attack had taken place. He feared both a repeat of the industrial unrest that had happened on the Clyde in the First World War and a Scottish nationalist revival on the backs of the heavy sacrifice being asked of the Scots in war.
When in 1943, to celebrate his memorable wartime triumphs and his inspirational wartime leadership, the City of Dundee offered Churchill the Freedom of the City, the reply came from Downing Street ten days later that “Mr Churchill regrets he is unable to accept the honour.” It was perhaps just as well: the city’s councilors had voted to offer him their Freedom on a split vote—and by a majority of just one.