At the birthday celebrations at Westminster Hall in November 1954, Churchill was presented with a portrait by Graham Sutherland, commissioned by past and present members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. It was Sutherland’s practice to prepare detailed sketches, almost completely finished works, often close-ups of the heads of his sitters.
Winston Churchill at the Trooping of the Colour in London, 5 June 1952 © Getty Images
In January 1950, a general election was called and this time Churchill took a more measured approach in his campaigning, avoiding those outright attacks on socialism he’d made in 1945.
By a tiny margin (six seats), the Labour government won the election.
Sir Winston was determined to fight the Socialists one final time in the 8 October election. He made two public speeches in his own constituency and one outside. Although he won with a majority of 14,000 there was some concern that his constituents were tiring of their octogenarian and ailing member.
In late October the doctor was summoned after Sir Winston had lost consciousness for a brief period. A consulting specialist thought the attack was due to “petit mal,” a form of epilepsy which also purportedly affected Caesar and Napoleon.
Despite Churchill’s declining state he was lucid enough to read both classics and contemporary offerings. Lord Moran asked him to comment on Tolstoy’s view of Napoleon, but he was more interested in Arthur Bryant’s The Turn of the Tide, based on the diaries of Lord Alanbrooke. Surprisingly, Sir Winston was not offended by what he read: “I was told that the second volume was worse than the first, full of venom, but as far as I have read I don’t find it so.”
Lady Churchill’s shingles had left her with a drooping eyelid but the condition was surgically cured in August. Impressed with the number of patients who required corneal transplants, she willed her eyes to Moorfields Eye Hospital for therapeutic purposes.
Despite her own medical problems, she shared the anxiety of Sir Winston’s doctor about his mental depression. Perhaps the “Black Dog” was brought on by his concern with his place in history. “Why,” Churchill asked Lord Moran, “do I get stuck down in the past? Why do I keep going over and over those years when I know that I cannot change anything?”
Others also dwelt on the Churchill past, but usually to tell stories about his famous, if somewhat caustic, wit. Churchill had been suspicious of the BBC since it had not allowed him to participate in some political broadcasts in the 1930’s, despite the fact that it had been the decision of the Tory leaders to exclude him. When WSC made similar political decisions as PM in the 1950s, the head of the BBC commented that Churchill’s real concern was the influence of Communists in the BBC. The executive remembered being told that he was “an antediluvian liberal sitting on a nest of vipers, which will presently strike and destroy you.
Lord Moran, Churchill’s doctor, entitles his diary entries for 1959: The Dying Gladiator.
In early April, Sir Winston suffered an arterial blockage which temporarily cut off circulation to his speech center, but he recovered in time to make, although somewhat haltingly, a speech to his Woodford constituents. As he came off the platform, he said: “Now for America.”
Despite expressed reservations of his doctor and his family, Churchill boarded a BOAC Comet jet for the United States in early May. To Eisenhower’s official welcome he responded: “I am most happy once again to set foot in the United States—my mother’s country I always think of it and feel it. I have come here on a quiet visit to see some of my old comrades of wartime days Although President Eisenhower had fully recovered from his heart attack, other wartime colleagues were less fortunate. John Foster Dulles was dying of cancer and General George Marshall was totally paralyzed by a stroke. But both were comforted by Churchill’s visit.
The visit was dominated by numerous stag dinners both formal and informal, at the White House and the British Embassy. An even more rewarding, but no less exhausting, experience may have been the visit to Eisenhower’s farm at Gettysburg. On the way home WSC stopped at New York, where he was cared for by his friend, Bernard Baruch, and where he visited Sunny’s ex-wife, Consuelo. At his departure, he told the farewell crowd at the airport that he was returning to “Britain, my other country.”
Lady Churchill had again suffered from shingles, but as usual organized a splendid Christmas and New Year’s at Chartwell, and a family outing, including Sir Winston, to see Sarah perform in Peter Pan in London. They then wintered in Marrakech, to which many changes, unfavorable in their view, had occurred since their visits of the late 1940s. But the visits of family and friends seemed to raise Sir Winston’s spirits. Lady Churchill wrote Mary,”.. .Papa is blooming in his health. His memory fails a little more day by day and he is getting deaf, But he is well. I have learnt to play poker and enjoy it very much”
Two years before at Beaverbrook’s villa, WSC had met Aristotle Onassis and his wife Tina. Onassis greatly admired WSC and invited him to cruise on his yacht, Christina, a converted British frigate. On 29 February they boarded the vessel for an Atlantic cruise which eventually took them to the Canary Islands,
Randolph and Arabella visited the Riviera to help celebrate their parents’ golden wedding anniversary. All of the children gave their parents a rose garden at Chartwell, and an illuminated book showing the design of the garden with individual pictures of roses by Britain’s leading flower painters. A blank page was left for Sir Winston to add his own picture, but he never did. His last painting, “Oranges and Lemons,” had earlier been completed. Advancing age had ended his hobby.
France showed its appreciation for Sir Winston’s wartime efforts. Author Jean Cocteau presented him with the Medaille de la Courtoisie Francaise and Charles de Gaulle presented him with the Croix de la Liberation. On the latter occasion Churchill reminded his audience that contemporary problems were in some ways greater than wartime: “It is harder to summon, even among friends and allies, a vital unity of purpose amidst the perplexities of a world situation which is neither peace nor war.” He reviewed the troops—very slowly—and reminisced about both wars during lunch. Although he spoke with some animation to his guests his French was improvised, his speech was slow and his thoughts wandered. De Gaulle commented to the organizer of the ceremony, “How sad!”
Health concerns troubled Sir Winston and Lady Churchill. CSC was afflicted with shingles, which affected her face, one eyelid and eye. This painful disease ruined Clemmie’s vacation visit to friends at the British Legation in Tangier. In July Lord Moran lunched with Halifax, who reflected on American views of Churchill. Halifax thought Americans perceived Winston as a relic of Britain’s imperial past. Moran also visited the mortally ill Brendan Bracken, who wanted to talk about the depression, fears, melancholy and shyness that Churchill -had fought to overcome all his life. Despite the calumny heaped on him, said Bracken, WSC was determined to never give in: “There is in Winston the old aristocratic contempt for consequences.”
In August, Sir Winston visited Lord Beaverbrook in France. His host noted that he was usually in a very low state in the morning, which he spent in bed reading. Card games—cribbage and gin rummy—passed the afternoon and, after a glass of champagne and two brandies, the evenings were spent in talking. Usually the topic was geopolitics. Sir Winston believed that Britain and Russia might work together and that an alliance between Russia, Germany and Britain would give security and stability to Europe and Asia. The Churchills were still with Lord Beaverbrook when several members of their family arrived to help them celebrate their Golden Wedding anniversary on 12 September.
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With his U. S. visit postponed, Sir Winston spent Easter at Chartwell, tended by a full time nurse, Roy Howells, who later wrote about his charge in Simply Churchill (1965). Beaver-brook described Churchill as “clear in his head though not firm on his feet.” Brendan Bracken, also ill, said that “his normal imperturbability seems rather dinted.” He was well enough to attend The Other Club in April, and to accompany Lord Beaverbrook to the 1940 Club, an organisation for those close to “The Beaver” in the Ministry of Aircraft Production in 1940. But his fever returned, causing Lord Moran much concern. One night the physician dined with Lady Churchill, who allegedly remarked, “You know, Charles. . . the Tories never really liked Winston. It was Labour that made him Prime Minister in 1940.”
Jock Colville, actively engaged in the founding of Churchill College, Cambridge, visited a depressed WSC who told Colville he did not wish to live. “Winston hasn’t got much out of life since he resigned,” Colville said.
Others also thought about Churchill’s approaching death. The question of how to handle his funeral originated with the Queen, and Lord Moran was summoned by the PM to discuss the matter. Meanwhile Bracken was terminally ill with cancer, and WSC overcame his intense dislike of hospitals to visit him. WSC still followed world politics, and commented that the return to power of de Gaulle “may purge French politics.”
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Churchill would have loved his own villa on the Riviera. He usually spent winters at La Capponcina, owned by Lord Beaver-brook; or at La Pausa, a large house with a magnificent view of Monte Carlo, owned by Emry Reves, a literary agent who handled foreign language rights of the War Memoirs (Woods A123) and A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (A138). Before going south, WSC arranged with Beaverbrook to show some of his paintings in the United States, at the request of President Eisenhower; these were also shown in the Beaverbrook Gallery, University of New Brunswick, Canada.
In the middle of January Sir Winston went to stay at La Pausa. On 18 January the British press reported that Sarah had been arrested in California, and charged with being drunk. This was distressing to her parents but Lady Soames writes that Sir Winston was beginning to “acquire a degree of insulation from sad and unpleasant news about those he loved.” Sarah visited WSC at La Pausa in February and Lady Churchill joined them a few days later.
“My dearest Pamela…I cherish your signal across the years…”
In October Churchill celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of his election to the House of Commons. That same month, in a felicitous coincidence, the House of Commons returned to its pre-war Chamber in Westminster, which had been destroyed ten years earlier by Nazi bombs and was now rebuilt, at Churchill’s direction, to its identical, albeit cramped, configuration. Churchill remarked: “I am a child of the House of Commons and have been here, I believe, longer than anyone. I was much upset when I was violently thrown out of my collective cradle. I certainly wanted to get back to it as soon as possible….It excites world wonder in the parliamentary countries that we should build a Chamber, starting afresh, which can only seat two thirds of its Members. It is difficult to explain this to those who do not know our ways. They cannot easily be made to understand why we consider that the intensity, passion, intimacy, informality and spontaneity of our Debates constitute the personality of the House of Commons and endow it at once with its focus and its strength.”
In October Pamela Plowden, his first love, now Lady Lytton, wrote to him reminding him that fifty years earlier he had, unsuccessfully, proposed marriage. His gracious reply is still affecting today: “My dearest Pamela…it is not till now that I can tell you how much I cherish yr signal across the years, from the days when I was [not only] a freak always that but much hated & ruled out, but there was one who saw some qualities, & it is to you that I am most deeply grateful. Do let us meet again soon. The Parl. will be sitting in November & perhaps you wd come & Lunch one day. Clemmie will telephone a plan. Fifty years! how stunning! but after all it is better than a hundred. Then there wd not be memory. With my deepest thoughts & love. From Winston.”
“We have as great dangers to face as we had ten years ago.”
Churchill supported the Attlee government’s backing of the U.S. resolution in the United Nations Security Council when North Korea invaded the South on 25 June 1950. Nevertheless, he was openly critical of British defence policy in debate on 27 July 1950:
“…so far, I have only spoken of the Soviet forces with which we are confronted eight or nine to one against us in infantry and artillery, and probably much more than that in tank formations….If the facts that I have stated cannot be contradicted by His Majesty’s Government, the preparations of the Western Union to defend itself certainly stand on a far lower level than those of the South Koreans….I warn the House that we have as great dangers to face in 1950 and 1951 as we had ten years ago. Here we are with deep and continuing differences between us in our whole domestic sphere, and faced with dangers and problems which all our united strength can scarcely overcome….It is with deep grief that I have to say these things to the House, and to reflect that it is only five years ago almost to a month when we were victorious, respected and safe.”
In early August, Churchill spoke at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg in favor of a European Army: “There must be created, and in the shortest possible time, a real defensive front in Europe. Great Britain and the United States must send large forces to the Continent. France must again revive her famous army. We welcome our Italian comrades. All‹Greece, Turkey, Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Scandinavian States‹must bear their share and do their best…. Those who serve supreme causes must not consider what they can get but what they can give. Let that be our rivalry in these years that lie before us.”
“Fertile milch cows are greatly valued”
Fifty years ago, Churchill’s vision for Europe was that no enduring peace was possible without an understanding between France and Germany. As Churchill told the House on 28 March, such a combination including Great Britain, would constitute: “the core or nucleus upon which all the other civilized democracies of Europe, bound or free, can one day rally and combine…I do not wish to fall into vague generalities. Let me, therefore, express our policy as I see it in a single sentence. Britain and France united should stretch forth hands of friendship to Germany, and thus, if successful, enable Europe to live again.”
Cutting oppressive income tax rates was still on his mind. On 28 April, Churchill spoke to the House on the Labour Party’s budget, speaking of the confiscatory tax rates set by the budget, he remarked: “Hate is not a good guide in public or in private life. I am sure that class hatred and class warfare, like national revenge, are the most costly luxuries in which anyone can indulge. The present Chancellor has boasted of the number of persons who have net incomes of £5000 or over a year. He has boasted that it has been reduced from 11,000 before the war to 250 at the present time, and that the number of those over £6,000 has been reduced from 7,000 to 70. These are great achievements. However necessary this extreme taxation was in the war‹I was responsible, as Prime Minister, for its imposition‹it certainly is not a process which increases the long term revenue of the nation or its savings.”
Churchill’s view was that the government should follow policies which lowered taxes and increased the number of rich people so they could pay more in taxes, the same policies which resulted in unprecedented prosperity in the United States during the last twenty years of the twentieth century. Using his own experience as a dairy farmer, Churchill illustrated why the Labor Party’s pride in reducing the ranks of the rich was a bad idea: “It is a great advantage in a dairy to have cows with large udders because one gets more milk out of them than the others. These exceptionally fertile milch cows are greatly valued in any well-conducted dairy, and anyone would be thought very foolish who boasted he had got rid of all the best milkers, just as he would be thought very foolish if he did not milk them to the utmost limit of capacity, compatible with the maintenance of their numbers.
“One More Heave Before The Year Is Out”
After spending Christmas at Chartwell, Churchill traveled to Madeira with his wife and daughter, Diana, intending to spend several weeks in the sun, painting and working on the fourth volume of his memoirs of World War II. Clement Attlee had different ideas. With Churchill safely out of the country, Attlee announced early in January that a General Election would be held on February 23rd. Churchill promptly flew back to London on January 12th and took command of the Conservatives’ campaign. Churchill not only served as the Conservatives’ chief spokesman but their chief copy editor as well. Revising the Tory election manifesto, Churchill blue pencilled “it is our intention to initiate consultations with the Unions” and substituted “we shall consult with the Unions.”
The Gallup polls showed the Conservatives with a narrow three percentage-point lead, when Churchill gave his first speech of the campaign, a radio broadcast on January 21. He attacked the economic conditions engendered by five years of Socialist rule, accusing the Socialists of pursuing a policy of “equalizing misery and organizing scarcity” and contrasting that with his view of a society based on “the establishment and maintenance of a basic standard of life and labour below which a man or a woman, however old or weak, shall not be allowed to fall. . . . Above the basic standard there will be free opportunity to rise. Everyone will be allowed to make the best of himself, without jealously or spite, by all the means that honour and the long respected laws of our country allow.”
In a speech on January 28th at the Woodford County School for Girls, Churchill appealed to consumers in his attack on the Socialist plans to nationalize industries: “Prosperous and well-managed industries, like cement and sugar and chemicals, are to be nationalized so that the consumer will have to pay more for their products, as he does for coal and electricity and transport, and so that a new horde of officials can be set up over them with new vistas of patronage opening out to Socialist politicians. Having made a failure of everything they have so far touched, our Socialist planners now feel it necessary to get hold of a few at present prospering industries so as to improve the general picture and the general results. There appears to be no plan or principle in the selection of these industries, except caprice and appetite. It does not matter how well they are now managed, how well they are serving the public, how much they sustain our export trade, how good are the relations between management and labour.”
Humorous behind the scenes footage of Churchill in January 1950 preparing a newsreel for the upcoming British General Election
In this election Churchill’s efforts came to naught as the Labour Party returned with a narrow majority of only six seats. But Labour had lost 78 seats while the Conservatives had gained 85 seats, thereby laying a foundation for another election in the near future, one Churchill privately predicted would come within the year. “One more heave before the year is out,” he wrote to a friend. But the heave was not to come until October, 1951.