Out of Office, Opposing Socialists
On 6 December 1923, Churchill lost the West Leicester by-election, his last campaign as a Liberal and the last he would wage on the issue of free trade, the same issue over which he left the Tories for the Liberals in 1904. Churchill pulled no punches in the campaign, belying the claim of his enemies that he was currying favor with the Conservatives in order to foster a return to their ranks. If that were his purpose, Churchill would not have attacked the Tory Leader Stanley Baldwin in so personal a way. In a speech given 26 November 1923, he had compared Baldwin to “the March Hare and the Mad Hatter” and ridiculed Baldwin’s self-characterization as “a plain, blunt, man,” calling him “as rich as any man in Leicester.” When not engaging in personalities, Churchill enhanced his reputation as the most effective political defender of free trade in his time: “What is the use of pretending that this greatest of all exporting nations has got to lie down pusillanimously behind a network of tariffs, cowering in our own markets, living by taking in each other’s washing, feeding like a dog on its own tail? [Laughter.]”
Like many politicians before and since, Baldwin overestimated the electoral appeal of protectionism. The Conservatives returned to office with a reduced margin, having lost 88 seats. Meanwhile, Churchill’s divided Liberal Party was busy arranging its own demise. Former Prime Minister Herbert Asquith made clear on 12 December that his wing‹the larger wing‹of the Liberals would support Labour over the Conservatives at the earliest opportunity, ensuring Britain its first Socialist government. Churchill signaled his disagreement in a letter to The Times on 18 January 1924: “The enthronement in office of a Socialist Government will be a serious national misfortune such as has usually befallen great States only on the morrow of defeat in war.” On 21 January 1924, the Liberals voted with Labour to oust Baldwin and, that same day, Ramsay MacDonald formed his government. That same day marked the beginning of Churchill’s eventual return to the Conservative Party of his youth.
On 24 February, after meeting with Baldwin in London, Churchill publicly called on Liberals to support the Conservative candidates in a by-election where there was no Liberal candidate. This prompted the Glasgow Herald to note: “Mr. Churchill seems a predestined champion of the individualism which he has served all his political life under both of its liveries.”
In March Churchill campaigned at a by-election in Westminster as “an Independent and Anti-Socialist Candidate,” claiming that “I have been fighting Socialist candidates in every election I have fought since 1908.” In a speech on 11 March 1924, Churchill’s prescient attack on socialism highlighted its inherent contradictions and foreshadowed its intellectual collapse 65 years later: “It is an absurd delusion that the industries of this country can be conducted through committees of elected politicians. One-tenth of the dose of Socialism which ruined Russia would kill Great Britain stone dead….[M]en with pendant and pedagogic minds and doctrinaire views, men with a desire to rule out exactly what every one of their fellow-citizens was to do and was not to do from dawn to dusk, from one year’s end to another, in pursuance of their goal, have in the history of the world brought untold miseries upon millions. [Cheers.] If, through mismanagement, or through the attempt to put into force impossible theories, grave conditions of distress are created, no one can say what will be the limit of the action of a tortured people. Then will come measures of repression by a Socialist Government.”
Churchill described in Thoughts and Adventures the Socialists who opposed him in that election: “Of course there are the rowdy meetings…shouting interruptions…and every kind of nasty question carefully thought out and sent up to the Chair by vehement-looking pasty youths or young short-haired women of bulldog appearance.” In vivid contrast, Churchill writes that he received “all kinds of support. Dukes, jockeys, prize-fighters, courtiers, actors and business men all developed a keen partisanship. The chorus girls of Daly’s Theatre sat up all night addressing the envelopes and dispatching the election address. It was most cheering and refreshing to see so many young and beautiful women of every rank in life, ardently working in a purely disinterested cause, not unconnected with myself.”