Leadership changes at the Admiralty
As Churchill assumed control of the Admiralty he became more convinced that Germany was intent on a war for control of Europe, and that the Naval War Staff was required to prepare the Royal Navy for the coming struggle. In order to reorganize the Royal Naval high command he asked for the resignation of the First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, and replaced him with Sir Francis Bridgeman.
As Second Sea Lord he appointed Prince Louis of Battenberg. His views on the Royal Navy were later expressed in The World Crisis: “…when I went to the Admiralty I found that there was not a moment in the career and training of a naval officer when he was obliged to read a single book about naval war…. The Royal Navy had made no important contribution to naval literature.”
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First Lord of the Admiralty
In September Clementine visited her austere grand- mother in Scotland while Winston conversed with the King at Balmoral. He then motored in his new red Napier (which had cost £610) to the Prime Minister’s home on the East Lothian coast of Scotland. This was not an unusual event since WSC was a favourite of Asquith and a friend of his daughter, Violet. It was, however, not to be a normal visit. During the visit he was advised that he was to be the new First Lord of the Admiralty. His elation and determination are reflected in his comment to Violet: “This is a big thing – the biggest thing that has ever come my way – the chance I should have chosen before all others. I shall pour into it everything I’ve got.”
“This is a big thing – the biggest thing that has ever come my way…”
Just as he could not refrain from involvement in military matters when he was in the Home Office, now, as he prepared to take over the Admiralty, he immersed himself in domestic issues, particularly in opposing the extension of the franchise to women. Fearing that the government would “go down on Petticoat politics,” he stated that he would be willing to abide by the results of a referendum. He told the owner of News of the World that “we already have enough ignorant voters and we don’t want any more.”
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Appointed to the Cabinet’s Committee on Imperial Defence
The record heat of the summer matched the political heat in Parliament. Ireland, Labour disputes, Parliamentary reform and Germany all vied for Churchill’s attention. Nothwithstanding his father’s old position, Winston became an active proponent of a united Ireland. Scions of other great families from the 1880s fight were also Involved; Austen Chamberlain (son of Joseph) and Lord Hugh Cecil (son of Lord Salisbury) bitterly opposed the Government’s plans. As Home Secretary, Churchill had first responsibility for law and order. This involved him directly in the dockworkers’ and transport workers’ strikes. His use of troops further alienated organized labour and the Left, which henceforth regarded him as a conservative enemy despite the many reforms passed during his tenure in office.
On the International scene he was reappraising his position. Although he and Lloyd George had led the opposition to increased armaments spending, they now perceived that Germany was an aggressive power. When a German gunboat appeared off Agadir in Morocco to intimidate the French, it unintentionally impressed the two British politicians who would have the greatest impact during the First World War. Asquith appointed Churchill to the Cabinet’s Committee on Imperial Defence. Later he wrote: “Once I got drawn in (to the preparation for war with Germany), it dominated all other interests in my mind.”
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The Other Club
Expecting their second child (dubbed “the Chumbolly”), the Churchills celebrated Easter at Blenheim. On 28 May a son, Randolph, was born at their home on Eccleston Square, London.
Shortly after, Winston attended his annual camp with the Oxfordshire Yeomanry at Blenheim.
On 22 June they attended the first of three coronations they would see during their lives. Clementine was not expected to attend but, through the kind offices of King George V, a royal carriage was sent for her and returned her to the hungry Randolph immediately after the ceremony.
Along with Home Office duties, Winston piloted the Parliament Bill through the House of Commons. When the House of Lords amended it out of recognition, it was obvious that the final battle was at hand.
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The Siege of Sidney Street
After spending Christmas at Blenheim, Churchill was at home at Eccleston Square when he was informed that the infamous Houndsditch gang, wanted anarchists, was trapped at 100 Sidney Street in Stepney. As Home Secretary he ordered the use of the Scots Guards and the Horse Artillery, and as an unregenerate activist, he went himself to observe the siege which ended in the burning of the house.
Churchill’s relationship with the King, George V, was uneven. Asquith had assigned him the task of writing a nightly letter, to the King on the work of the House. In one letter, after proposing labor colonies for tramps and wastrels, he added: “it must not be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale,” The King was offended by this remark which evoked considerable correspondence between the Royal secretary, Lord Knollys, and WSC.
Churchill’s relations with the monarch were considerably enhanced by his defense of the King against a charge by an Edward Mylius, in a republican and anarchist paper, that the King had been previously married while serving with the Mediterranean Fleet. Because Churchill had been in complete charge of the legal challenge, the conviction of Mylius for criminal libel sweetened the relationship with George V.
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Social unrest dominated British political life at this time and, as Home Secretary, WSC carried primary responsibility for government response to the ferment. Worker riots centered on the Welsh mining town of Tonypandy. Churchill’s actions earned him severe criticism of both the Left and the Right. The Left attacked him for excessive use of force; the Right charged that he should have used troops, not police, to quell the disturbances.
The calling of an election killed the Conciliation Bill or the Parliamentary Franchise (Women) Bill. On what the suffragettes called Black Friday (18 November) many women were beaten in a demonstration on Parliament Square. Despite Churchill’s desire to pre- vent this, he was held responsible. On 22 November he supervised police action in another demonstration at Downing Street. A few days later, he was physically attacked by a male supporter of the suffragettes. For many years he was perceived as a special villain by many Labour supporters and suffragettes.
He made prison reform a personal concern. He noted that sons of the working class faced jail terms for offenses which were perceived to be manifestations of exuberant spirits in sons of other classes. He proposed time to pay debts instead of jail sentences. Capital punishment cases caused him much anguish.
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The Tonypandy Riots
In April, the Lords finally passed the “People’s Budget,” but the Liberals, determined to prevent the Lords from ever vetoing Commons legislation, introduced the Parliament Bill. Churchill assumed the responsibility for piloting it through the Commons.
The death of King Edward VII in May brought a brief respite from political strife. In June the new sovereign, King George V, called an All-Party Constitutional Conference, but it failed to produce an acceptable compromise. Although an initial proposal for a coalition Cabinet excluded Churchill, he was eventually considered for the War Office. In the end, the Tories would have no truck with either Churchill or Lloyd George.
In July, WSC introduced to the House major reforms in the prison system: time would be allowed to pay debts instead of debtors being sent to prison; suspended sentences were provided for trivial offenses; offenses punishable by prison sentences were reduced for drunkards and youthful offenders. “The first real principle which should guide anyone trying to establish a good system of prisons,” Churchill said, “should be to prevent as many people as possible getting there at all.”
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Secretary of State for the Home Office
As Secretary of State for the Home Office, Churchill was a senior official in the Asquith Government. Only one predecessor in that office had been younger—Sir Robert Peel.
A transport workers strike in South Wales, called while Churchill was holidaying in Switzerland, nearly provoked the use of troops and London Police, but it was settled without violence. His support of the activities of a non-party Conciliation Committee on female suffrage was conditional on the support of other leaders and did not commit him to any specific legislation.
He assumed a traditional task of the Prime Minister in writing a nightly letter to the King on the affairs of the House. In two years, he would write 138 letters to his sovereigns, Edward VII and George V. The letters were factual but also replete with personal comments. For example, on the issue of precedents for the extraordinary use of the Royal Prerogative in creating Peers, he informed the King that Lord Hugh Cecil had cited the creation of 12 new Peers to destroy the Whig Majority in 1711. This was, Churchill wrote, “a singularly unsatisfactory example from the history of the past.”
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