The debate about that will go on for as long as there are historical debates as will the disagreements about Churchill’s post-war premiership. When I posted last month on his resignation, putting forward the opinion that many of Britain’s post-war problems may have been further exacerbated by that government, John Barnes wrote a reply in which he suggested that the comment was less than fair:
“I think you are less than fair to Churchill's second government (should it not be labelled his third?). Signing up to GATT, virtually ending controls, apart alas from exchange control, some measures of denationalisation, all would suggest a degree of economic liberalism that wasn't on offer once Macmillan was firmly in the saddle. And Churchill himself until his stroke was far from ineffective, if not the driving force of the wartime years. Talking with those who served, both politicians and civil servants, in the early '50s reveals a clear consensus that he was non compos in his last six months, but much more dispute about the earlier months in 1954. Might be an excellent issue to do, not on Churchill himself, but on that government. Maggie at times saw it as a precursor, at others part of butskellism. Which view was correct? As you can sense my view is that we have postwar history wrong. We underestimate the socialism of the Attlee Governments, therefore we underrate the importance of the 1951-55 government in rolling back socialism and tend to underplay the part Macmillan played after 1959 in revisiting the corporatist strain in Tory politics.”My own feeling is that not many historians underestimate Attlee’s socialism or Macmillan's corporatism but, possibly, they have not paid enough attention to the few attempts to roll it back made while Churchill was Prime Minister.
Geoffrey Best in his “Churchill: A study in greatness” refers to him as “one-nation Tory” and argues that it was that particular attitude, which made Churchill dislike the fiery class warriors like Aneurin Bevan while having reasonably warm feelings towards many Labour MPs and, especially, his opponent, Clement Attlee.
Others have described Churchill as a Whig or a paternalist Tory (often indistinguishable from the one-nation variety).
By no stretch of the imagination can one call Churchill a small-government Conservative. He may have spoken about freedom but he did not necessarily see it as part of everybody’s every day life. As Best describes, the more ideologically minded anti-socialist Conservatives found Churchill’s post-war leadership very frustrating even before the big stroke almost incapacitated him.
In Opposition he found it difficult to argue with Attlee’s legislation, though he harried the government and encouraged others to do likewise, that being, in his opinion, the role of the Opposition. This is what Best says on p 302 of his book:
“In peace as in war he didn’t like planning for too far ahead; you never knew what unforeseen opportunities and problems might turn up in the meantime. He herefore resisted the enghusiasts’ call for, as he viewed it, a premature declaration of Conservative policy and settled for keeping the party’s commitment to principles and generalities while Labour’s popularity burned itself out.It is not unreasonable to argue that, possibly, there were few alternatives in the immediate post-war years, though many Conservatives saw matters otherwise and were working on ideas that could be put up in opposition to the socialism of Attlee’s government. But things did not change all that much when the Conservatives came back into power.
It was indeed difficult to see what else could profitably have been done. Labour had come into Parliament with 184 more seats than the Conservatives. It set about its ambitious legislative programme without a week’s delay. The first of its seris of nationalisations, that of the Bank of England, was one with which in fact Churchill had a good deal of sympathy; a nationalised bank would not, he thought, have leaned on him to make the wrong decision in 1925. And that was only one of Labour’s measure he had no stomach to oppose.
He had favoured nationalising the railways since the Great War. He would not have been sorry if the coal industry had been nationalised in the troublesome 1920s. He could not find any good arguments against the case for keeping or bringing into public owndership public utilities that were also natural monopolies. …..
Then there was the government’s legislation establishing the National Health Service and comprehensive social insurance. The latter did bring him into action, but only to claim for himself when young, for pre-war Conservative governments and for his wartime coalition most of the credit for what he picked out as the schemes’ more sensible, affordable and discriminating elements.”
This is Best’s analysis on pp 306 -7
“In a political language more familiar now than it was then, Churchill was a ‘wet’. The term already had some currency, and thye general ‘wetness’ of his administration was explicitly lamented by Conservatives of ‘dry’ disposition. But Churchill wanted it that way. It fortified his aspiration to national unity and ran closer to the socio-parliamentary pattern he had always imagined to be the best; no doubt it also flattered his idea of himself as a national leader.And, of course, there was the matter of industrial relations, which settled into their disastrous pattern under Churchill, who, according to Best “had indeed in his old age become an ‘industrial appeaser’.”
His government’s policy was therefore was to take over as many of the preceding government’s institutional innovations as it could, and to disturb as little as possible the social and industrial realtions it inherited.”
I shall stop there, having quoted only from Best, who may be said to have approached the subject somewhat from the left and not the somewhat stronger views expressed by Andrew Roberts, a man of the right. The hope, as ever, is that this posting will provoke a discussion, even a debate on a subject that is of great import in conservative history.