Essays - Summer 2011

The Forgotten Churchill

The man who stared down Hitler also helped create the modern welfare state

By George Watson | June 3, 2011


He stares defiantly at the camera, a bulldog surprised, and everyone knows what he has in mind. It is December 1941, just after Pearl Harbor, and Winston Churchill is defying Hitler. Seated in Ottawa in the paneled room of the speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, he has just given one of the great speeches of history—the one about England’s neck being wrung like a chicken—“some chicken, some neck.” Canadian parliamentarians will roar back their sympathy and their support. Although only a few hours earlier Roosevelt’s doctor, full of doubts, had visited him in Washington at the White House, he looks fit. At the age of 67 he has given the performance of a lifetime.


As his picture was being taken, though, he was not thinking about Hitler at all. Yousuf Karsh, the Canadian photographer of Armenian heritage who snapped him staring defiantly, has told the story. Churchill had been smoking a cigar in that paneled room, and the photographer, with the briefest of apologies, had just reached forward and snatched it from his lips. His speech is given, but he is wondering what has suddenly happened to his cigar.

The performance survives on film, and it is a masterpiece of theatrical timing, with a long dramatic pause between “some chicken” and “some neck” as the old stager slowly rotates his entire body nearly 180 degrees while a gentle chuckle swells into a roar, a roar into a cheer. That is the Churchill everyone knows—a consummate actor who could capture the mood of millions—and no one who saw it could ever forget it.

A lot about Churchill is forgotten, nonetheless, except by professional historians. He had been a politician for more than 40 years when he made that speech, and he had switched parties at least twice, sitting in the Commons after 1904 for 20 years as a Liberal before he consented to call himself (once again) a Conservative. The grandson of a duke, he was distrusted by his elders as a turncoat and not always acceptable as a dinner guest. First elected to Parliament in the fall of 1900, in the last weeks of Queen Victoria’s reign, he entered the cabinet at Liberal Prime Minister H. H. As­quith’s invitation in April 1908. In the same year, after being refused in marriage by Ethel Barrymore (among other ladies), he married Clementine Hozier. Then came two world wars that changed many lives, and especially his.

What is forgotten, above all, is his role as a social reformer and a founder of the British welfare state. In 1908, as president of the national Board of Trade, Churchill invited a young William Beveridge onto his team: Beveridge was a Scottish civil servant who would one day design the British National Health Service. Nowadays, however, those who gaze at the carved slab inside the door of Westminster Abbey that reads “Remember Winston Churchill” seldom remember that. Even in 1965, when the slab was unveiled by Queen Elizabeth II, a few months after his death, all that people remembered was the war hero who defied Hitler, with or without a cigar.

Sitting in the smoking room of the Commons in his last years, after he had retired from the premiership, Churchill would call the Asquith government of 1908–16 “the best government I ever served in.” A belligerent, mischievous look would come into his face, and he would bark and repeat two words, “by far,” shouting in biting sarcasm to a group of Conservative members. For years, as they knew, he had led a party he despised. The Conservatives, under the dynamic influence of Joseph Chamberlain, Neville’s father, had turned protectionist early in the century; Churchill was a free trader to his dying day. In his 15 years as Tory party leader (1940–55) he had striven endlessly to bring Liberals back into Parliament. He had tried, in 1950–51, to persuade the Conservatives not to contest 50 parliamentary seats, and his party had rejected the idea. He had prevailed upon a Yorkshire constituency to give Asquith’s daughter, Violet Bonham Carter, a free run against Labour, but the votes were not there. By his second premiership (1951–55) he was a failing man, known to his impatient cabinet colleagues as the Old Boy and urged by doctors and a loving wife to give up and accept retirement. By then he was as famous as any man alive. The defeat of Hitler had ensured that. But he was subject to deep fears, black depressions, and a sense of having lived a life without a party and without a cause.

He dreamed an Edwardian dream. The short reign (1901–10) of Victoria’s heir, Edward VII, can be extended without undue strain at either end, from the death of the Irish leader Charles Stewart Parnell in 1891 to the outbreak of war in 1914. It is still a short space, and easily overlooked. The British, with the defeat of the Boers in 1902, had conceived a world design. Colony after colony would follow Canada, New Zealand, and Australia into independence or dominion status, as South Africa did in 1910, and an assembly of nations would show the whole wide world an example of parliamentary government and the rule of law. To translate into terms that have since become familiar, an empire would become a commonwealth. That was the dream Churchill had shared and kept. Europe was not part of it. Europe was a place where problems were hatched and ancient enemies waited and lurked. It was in the wider world—in “the nation and the race dwelling all around the globe”—that help would be sought and solutions found. Such states would be parliamentary, and devoted above all things to social welfare, in which by the 1930s Britain was already a world leader.

In 1908, when Asquith became prime minister, there were almost no models of state welfare anywhere on earth. The exception was Bismarck’s Prussia, which to the dismay of German Social Democrats had instituted compulsory health insurance in 1883. That created a sudden panic on the left. Karl Marx had died weeks before, so the socialist leader August Bebel consulted his friend Friedrich Engels, who insisted that socialists should vote against it, as they did. The first welfare state on earth was created against socialist opposition.

By the new century Prussia was setting an example. Lloyd George and Churchill, as members of Asquith’s cabinet, went there to watch state welfare in action; Churchill, the more studious of the two, read published reports. In 1909 he collected his speeches in Liberalism and the Social Problem, where he made a case for seeing state welfare as an essential prop to a free economy. The Left had good reason to fear it, as he knew. Welfare promotes initiative, initiative promotes growth, and “where there is no hope, be sure there will be no thrift.”

Welfare, what is more, had an imperial dimension. The Boer War had been won with a volunteer army, and the nation had been shocked to hear of the high incidence of ill health among recruits. An empire needs troops. There was nothing socialist about state welfare, and socialists were right to fear the specter of a national health service. They continued to fear it, and when years later the Beveridge report appeared, in December 1942, it proved a bestseller but was roundly condemned in a letter by Beatrice Webb, an old Fabian, as a disastrous idea—though fortunately, as she added, very unlikely to be acted on. In the event, Labour was the last of the three British parties to accept a National Health Service, and William Beveridge, whom I knew as a neighbor in his last years, was endlessly bitter about the derision that Labour leaders had once heaped on his ideas.

The forgotten truth about health provision is that socialism and state welfare are old enemies, and welfare overspending is a characteristic of advanced capitalist economies. Nobody doubts that California is capitalistic, and its public debt is notorious; the People’s Republic of China, by contrast, is a major creditor in international finance. When the two Germanies united after 1990, the social provision of the capitalist West was more than twice that of the socialist East, and the cost of unification to West Germany proved vast. Talk of socialized medicine was always misleading if socialized implies socialist, and the very word probably guarantees that confusion. The British National Health Service of 1948, like the Canadian version that followed it 20 years later, always allowed for a flourishing private sector—a sector that has tended to grow with the years. It neither banned private medical care nor discouraged it. Only a competitive economy, what is more, is likely to generate a tax base big enough to maintain public hospitals, pensions, and schools. In short, a free economy needs state welfare, and state welfare needs a free economy.

Churchill’s Nobel Prize in Literature was more apt than the world knew. Although he is said to have wanted the Peace Prize, he was always, from early adulthood, a man of letters. His earliest books were records of his African adventures, and in 1900 he wrote a novel called Savrola in the manner of Anthony Hope, the author of The Prisoner of Zenda. In 1906 he produced a biography of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, and a quarter of a century later a four-volume life of his ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough. They are disappointing books, needlessly extensive and devoid of any sense of personal weakness or vice. I have never knowingly met anyone who read his History of the English-Speaking Peoples, which appeared in four volumes in 1956–58. No doubt it comforted his declining years.

That leaves the oratory, and in academic schools of literature oratory is by far the most neglected of all literary forms. I doubt if any department of English on earth boasts a single class or a single doctoral thesis on such a subject. Somehow, and for some deeply buried reason that defies scrutiny, students of literature do not study speeches. The notion that literature could ever change the world—the idea of a literature of power—is widely felt to be obsolete, and the charm of being useless dominates debate wherever literary degrees are sought or won.

It was not always so, and Churchill would not have countenanced such neglect. He would have concurred with Thoreau, who wrote in his journal in 1844: “Writing may be either the record of a deed or a deed. It is nobler when it is a deed.” Churchill’s own education was belated and haphazard. Asquith’s daughter Violet, who first met him as a teenager at a dinner party at 10 Downing Street, loved to tell how she had persuaded him to read the odes of John Keats, of whom (even in his 30s) he was ignorant, and fostered in him a belated love of fine letters. It was a love that grew with the years. My most vivid recollection relates to a moment in a London theater when, seconds before the curtain rose on a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, with Claire Bloom as Viola, he and his wife suddenly appeared from a side door, causing the whole audience to gasp with astonishment and rise to its feet. The world-famous pair was spirited away at the interval and again at the close. He knew the language of Shakespeare and treasured it, and he would have agreed that if the speeches of Demosthenes mean little to students of classical literature, or the speeches of Lord Chatham and Edmund Burke to students of English, the loss is ours.

He lived to be 90, and biographers have never got to the end of him and never will. Nigel Nicolson used to tell how at first meeting in the Commons he had asked the old man in his second premiership what the most important quality was in public life, and how Churchill had replied briefly “mettle” and returned to his racing paper. His wit was so acidic that it became legendary, like Oscar Wilde’s; and as with Wilde, witty remarks probably uttered by others were attributed to him. His mind, early and late, was untiring in spawning bright ideas: state-sponsored labor exchanges, state pensions, action against sweatshops. In March 1911 he proposed to the Asquith cabinet a scheme to federate the British Isles in order to settle the Irish problem, with parliaments for Scotland, Wales, and the English regions. His mind was endless.

When he died in January 1965 his life looked suddenly simple, as lives do when they end. There was a state funeral in London, by royal command, and the coffin, which had lain in state for three days in the Palace of Westminster under a Union flag, was placed on a special train at Waterloo and greeted by silent crowds all the way to Bladon in Oxfordshire, where he was laid to rest among his ancestors in a village churchyard. The silent crowds were in no doubt what it was all about. To them, or most of them, he was not the leader of a party. Nor was he one of the founders of the welfare state, or a federated British Isles, or labor exchanges. To them he was the man who, with or without a cigar, had defied Hitler and won. In the end, or so it seemed, and in total silence as a nation wept, it was as simple as that.

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