May 9, 2009

Reviewed by Richard M. Langworth

Churchill: His Radical Decade, by Malcolm Hill. London: Othila Press 1999

In 1854 in the United States, President Franklin Pierce vetoed a bill to finance a federal hospital for the mentally ill because “I find nothing in the Constitution to authorize this.” In 1896, President Grover Cleveland opposed a bill for federal flood relief on the same grounds. Ten years later in Britain, when the Liberal Party swept into power in a landslide election, the ground shifted. The Liberal Government of 1906 held it a State responsibility to create what Churchill called “a Minimum Standard,” below which no citizen should be allowed to fall. Not until the Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal did similar ideas arrive in America. Churchill’s Liberals created a rudimentary welfare state twenty years before FDR and might have extended it had World War I not intervened.

Little has been published on Churchill’s decade as radical-Liberal (roughly the first decade of the 20th century) when he became disenchanted with the Conservative Party, crossed the floor to the Liberals and, encouraged by Lloyd George, railed against the privileges of his class. Criss-crossing the country in what Alistair Cooke compared to “a gigantic vaudeville act,” Churchill and Lloyd George championed old age pensions, prison reform, unemployment insurance, public health care, and reform (if not elimination) of the House of Lords. Malcolm Hill, whose book addresses this obscure period, believes Churchill’s quest was “hopeless” because he did not believe the state should “take responsibility by taxation for retirement, education, health and welfare”; but that Churchill showed “unusual stature” in his efforts to mitigate poverty, far in advance of better-known reformers like Franklin Roosevelt.

Hill argues that Churchill was as great a statesman in peace as well as war, and that his first decade in Parliament was his finest in peacetime. Nevertheless, Hill continues, the premature death in 1908 of the first Liberal Prime Minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, irrevocably altered the course of Churchill’s party. From basic reforms to eliminate poverty, the Liberals moved to mitigate poverty’s effects: treating the symptoms rather than the disease. Campbell-Bannerman’s successor, Herbert Asquith, “had no creative political imagination” and allowed David Lloyd George, “a dazzling performer,” to formulate domestic policy, with Churchill as his “admiring lieutenant.” Together they devised “popular schemes for national insurance against unemployment and sickness, labour exchanges, schemes against ‘sweated labour’ and the like, without thought of the reason why the great majority of society found themselves in such a condition of poverty.” This set back the course of true reform for a century to come.

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Hill considers Churchill’s radical years in twelve chapters ranging from his entry into Parliament through the Parliament Bill debate of 1911, and in a final chapter, “The Passing of Radicalism” (“The End of Radicalism” as the chapter heads read in a rather loosely edited book.) By 1912, Hill concludes, “the issues were slipping from political life. Churchill’s love of the bright lights and ambition allowed the question to fade in his political thinking….The First World War finally buried liberal thinking.” The promises of free trade and taxation reform, which Hill thinks would have helped to eliminate poverty at its root, were lost with the Great War. “Political thought has not recovered its pre-war scale. The people have become more heavily oppressed and government has become increasingly powerful, but impotent.” The question Churchill asked still remains: “…what is the general cause in society of poverty among able-bodied persons? That alone contains as large a question in peacetime as survival does in war. Why should such a noble creature as man live under injustice when not at war?”

The author, a biographer of Anne-Robert Turgot and Henry George, believes that their concept of community land value taxation was the key to eliminating poverty at its source. Turgot and George saw that “communities created land value as a natural fund for taxation and that all man-made things should be exempt from taxation.” During settlement of the American West, wrote the American George, all went well “as long as settlers would work on free land. Earnings rose to what a man or woman could earn by themselves on their own land. But once land was fully enclosed…new arrivals had to seek work in competition with each other from landlords. Earnings fell to the least that a man would accept and that depended on the state of competition between those seeking work. A pool of unemployed dragged the level of earnings to the minimum that an unemployed man would demand.”

Campbell-Bannerman and Churchill grasped the nature of poverty, Hill says, but Lloyd George didn’t. Once Churchill attached himself to Lloyd George as junior lieutenant, true reform was lost to political expediency. Lloyd George had no political principles, Hill believes, and attempts at land value taxation were gradually whittled down and disappeared. Thus perished the opportunity truly to eliminate the cause of poverty, giving way to government sponsored welfare schemes paid for by direct taxation. “The people may go about with state spectacles and state dentures, but they may be made unemployed by the taxation required to pay for these things. Whereas the individual can take steps to remedy poor eyesight and poor teeth, he cannot overcome the condition of poverty himself.”

Almost alone among the Asquith cabinet, Hill continues, Churchill saw the truth but was unable to serve it. Yet his 1908 statements on taxation “merit inscription in gold lettering wherever men deliberate state expenditure”:

Taxation, raise it as you please, is a gross and unredeemable evil….All taxation is an evil, a necessary evil, if you will, but still an evil, in so far as taxation is concerned, harsh, unmingled, and unmitigated…. When the state takes arbitrarily from the savings or earnings of the people sums of money, great or small, it withdraws that money from the healthy fructifications of industry and trade and it diminishes cannot fail to diminish the consuming & productive energies of the people.

It would take a better student of taxation and economics than this writer to evaluate Mr Hill’s argument. For example, are the issues Turgot and George raised at the turn of the last century valid in a world where land has long been enclosed, where millionaires are created without any reference to landholdings? But whatever his regrets over the opportunities squandered by Churchill’s radical decade, Malcolm Hill has rendered a detailed and useful account of a little-known period in Churchill’s career.

It may be ironic that modern admirers of Sir Winston point to his role in creating the English Welfare State if, as Hill says, that concept was wrong from the beginning because it failed to address the root causes of poverty. It may also be that Churchill’s accomplishments during 1904-11 were comparable to what Larry Arnn has described as his accomplishments at Yalta and Potsdam: “the best he could do in the situation that then prevailed.”

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