Churchill’s peacetime cabinet (Woolton is front row, second from left)
Finest Hour 183, First Quarter 2019
By Iain Carter
Iain Carter is Political Director of the Conservative Party. He has previously been a special adviser to the Leader of the House of Lords and a member of the Conservative Research Department.
When it came to preparing meals during the Second World War, the British people had to make do with what they were allocated under the ration. Francis Latry, Maitre Chef de Cuisine at the Savoy Hotel, came to the rescue with a recipe for vegetable pie that was then popularized by Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food responsible for overseeing the rationing system. “Woolton Pie,” as the pastry became known, would be forgotten as soon as the end of wartime austerity could be achieved. Making the most of sparse beginnings, however, was something the former Cabinet minister would be called upon to repeat.
In a private conversation following Labour’s landslide victory in the 1945 general election, Winston Churchill remarked, “I shall not be idle. I shall write, I shall speak on the wireless and I shall still be an MP, although I shall never return to Number Ten.”1 The Conservatives had suffered their worst defeat in two generations, yet less than six years later Churchill would return to Number 10 to begin his second premiership at the head of a majority government. He was propelled there in part because of a rejuvenated Conservative Party campaign machine, in addition to the changes in policy and policy making which are more commonly focused on.
In October 1922, the Conservatives voted to bring down the coalition. Churchill was not in a fit state to fight his seat. He’d just been operated on for appendicitis and was too ill to take part in the earlier stages of the election. Clearly unwell and unable to fight with his usual vim and vigour, he lost.
Out of Parliament for the first time in twenty two years (apart from a few weeks in 1908), he retired to the South of France, took up writing again – he embarked on a mammoth history of the First World War, The World Crisis – but he couldn’t stay away from politics for long.
Although he was defeated in his first attempt to enter Parliament in 1899, Churchill’s fame following his dramatic escape from the Boers tipped the balance in the election of 1900. He achieved a small majority and won his longed-for ‘seat’ as a Conservative MP for Oldham, Lancashire, beginning a political career that would last over sixty years.
He made his maiden speech in the House of Commons on 18 February 1901 at the age of twenty-six, speaking immediately after Lloyd George, ensuring the young politician a very full house. Churchill had prepared his speech very carefully and more or less learned it by heart. Although this isn’t unusual in a maiden speaker, Churchill – more unusually – continued this meticulous preparation throughout his career.
I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words and their methods. I feel no sort of sympathy with them – except to my own people at Oldham.
Churchill to Lord Hugh Cecil (unsent), 24 October 1903
Churchill was appointed Home Secretary following the January 1910 election, when the Liberal party was again returned to power. It was during this time that he most clearly demonstrated that strange mix of his nature – of the radical reformer and the reactionary. While he helped introduce reforms to the prison system, reducing sentencing for younger people and improving conditions, he also opposed strikers and refused to support votes for women.
In 1905, Prime Minister Balfour resigned and Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman formed a government pending a January election, appointing Churchill as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, assisting Lord Elgin. And in the Liberal Party’s landslide election victory in early 1906, Churchill was elected as the Liberal MP for North-West Manchester. Churchill, the ambitious, shining ‘glow-worm’, was on his way.
Churchill rapidly established himself as a prominent New Liberal, combining a commitment to free trade with support for a programme of social reform and was one of the main architects of Britain’s incipient welfare state. To those Tories he’d ‘betrayed’ by ‘crossing the floor’, he was now betraying their class, too. By April 1908, however, his ‘star’ seemed to be shining clearer and clearer (see prophecy), as he achieved cabinet rank, as President of the Board of Trade in Herbert Asquith’s new government, at the age of only thirty-three. In this role he introduced a number of initiatives (not all of which were adopted during his tenure but were later).
Churchill Seemed to Regard Most Highly the American Presidents Who Didn’t Return His Admiration
Winston Churchill experienced eleven American presidents—as many as the Queen. He did not personally meet them all, as she has; but each contributed to his outlook and policies. His relations with the seven presidents from McKinley to Hoover are only stage-setters to the main events: FDR, Truman, Eisenhower. But one of them, Theodore Roosevelt, offers interesting insights.
Churchill, aged 26, and TR, aged 42, got off to a thoroughly bad start. When Churchill met the hero who had charged up San Juan Hill two months before the Englishman had charged at Omdurman, he professed vast approval of then-Governor Roosevelt. But TR, doubtless aware of young Winston’s reputation as a publicity seeker, did not return the compliment.
“I saw the Englishman, Winston Churchill…he is not an attractive fellow,” Roosevelt confided to a friend after the meeting.1 The negative impression proved as enduring as their parallel careers—both were to shift party allegiance; both were to achieve the highest political office; both were awarded a Nobel Prize. TR was, incidentally, the only president who profusely wrote books: eighteen, against Churchill’s fifty-one—mostly about hunting and outdoor life, though it is noteworthy that both he and Churchill wrote about the War of 1812.2 Read More >
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Churchill was delighted when a little girl surprised him with flowers one day in Italy. Gratefully moving his cane aside, he gave her a kiss on the cheek. Missing his own family, and beset with troubles, he truly loved this moment. I guess we’ll never know the little chap behind the bouquet. … See MoreSee Less
The International Churchill Society (ICS), founded in 1968 shortly after Churchill's death, is the world’s preeminent member organisation dedicated to preserving the historic legacy of Sir Winston Churchill.
At a time when leadership is challenged at every turn, that legacy looms larger and remains more relevant than ever.