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Wilderness Years

By the early 1930s, Churchill no longer had a Government position. He opposed plans to give greater independence to India and seemed out of touch.

Based at his beloved house at Chartwell in Kent, he continued to write books and newspaper articles, but many thought his political career was over. It was his vocal opposition to Hitler’s new Nazi dictatorship in Germany, and his calls for British rearmament, that gradually brought him back to public notice. Initially, it was a message that few wanted to hear, but after the Munich Crisis of 1938 and the German occupation of Czechoslovakia, there was a growing consensus that he was right. When war finally broke out in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had no choice but to make him First Lord of the Admiralty, the same position that he had held at the outbreak of the First World War.

In this section, you’ll learn more about Churchill’s years in ‘the wilderness’ and how he finally returned to power.

India The beginning of the road to self-rule

Returning to Britain from the US, Churchill found Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government had issued a declaration, in October 1929, that British rule in India should aim to allow India ‘Dominion Status’. A firm believer that British rule was a guarantee of good government, Churchill’s found himself arguing against colleagues in his own party. Baldwin had endorsed the declaration and nearly everyone else within the party felt that India should be granted limited self-government and dominion status. Only a few ‘diehard’ Conservatives supported Churchill. He fought vehemently.

Churchill argued strongly that only British rule could prevent racial and religious divisions within India resulting in bloodshed. But Churchill’s fighting talk didn’t win anyone over. When Gandhi and other Congress politicians were released from prison to attend discussions on constitutional reform, Churchill resigned in protest from the shadow cabinet in January 1931.

It is alarming … to see Mr Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal Palace while he is still organising and conducting a campaign of civil disobedience.
Churchill, 23 February 1931

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Out of Office Return to opposition

In the general election of May 1929, the Conservatives under Baldwin lost their majority and went into opposition against a Labour government. Although Churchill was keen to develop an alliance between Liberals and Conservatives, his proposal was vetoed by some in the Shadow Cabinet.

Finding himself out on a limb politically and increasingly frustrated by developments in Westminster, in August 1929 Churchill left Britain for a three-month tour of Canada and the United States, his first visit to the continent since 1901. He was to remain without a ministerial position for the next ten years.

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Churchill Weakened Out of government

Those who had felt Churchill’s career had reached its limit when the Conservatives were defeated in 1929 now felt vindicated. Even some of his own party thought Churchill was out of date and out of touch. Rather than weakening Baldwin’s position (as leader), as some thought he’d intended, Churchill – by endeavouring to ‘marshal British opinion’ for a lost cause – in fact, weakened his own position.

When Baldwin and MacDonald joined forces to form a National Government in 1931, bringing together leading figures from the Conservative, Labour and Liberal parties, Churchill’s views on India meant he was excluded from office. With his standing and credibility seriously damaged, this ‘personal crusade without restraint or care for the consequences’ (Ball, Churchill) meant his later warnings about the dangers of Nazism went largely unheeded.

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A Break from Politics spending time traveling and writing

Much of the 1930s was devoted to travel and writing. Some of the former was for pleasure; Churchill had always relished travelling and enjoyed his time away from Britain. He spent many months on the continent – at expensive hotels, at the chateaux of friends and acquaintances, always with his easel and paints at hand.

Churchill used these long periods abroad, in the sunshine and among those who respected him, to recharge his batteries and restore his energy. His favourite holiday destination was the French Riviera, where he enjoyed the hospitality of wealthy American hostesses like Maxine Elliott and Consuelo Balsan, all of whom had genuine affection for Churchill and played host to him in their villas, providing him with much-needed relaxation.

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As I Knew Him: Churchill in the Wilderness Churchill Society International Convention

By Dr Maurice Ashley CBE

Proceedings of the International Churchill Societies 1988-89

London, England, 19 August 1989

NEXT year it will be twenty-five years since Sir Winston Churchill died. The British Broadcasting Corporation is preparing a three-part documentary to be shown on television to commemorate his wonderful life. I remember paying my respects at his lying in state. With the help of a member of the Government I did not have to join the queue of 300,000 people who entered Westminster Hall to circulate around the catafalque. His funeral was a deeply moving ceremony. But it is now sixty years since I first met him and worked for him. I must he one of the very few people still alive who knew him’ intimately at that time, which is sometimes described as his days in the wilderness. Baroness Soames was then a child- all I can remember of her then was that she was having riding lessons.

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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.

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