Was Churchill a Conservative?

Posted by Helen Monday, May 15, 2006

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 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.”
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.

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.

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.”
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’.”

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.


  1. Anonymous Says:
  2. 1. You mean Asquith. Really not fair to Churchill. There was disorder, and it was mishandled, but he was not clearly wrong sending in troops.
    2. There are some arguments to be made in mitigation, but we can concede this one. He should not have been Chancellor of the Exchequer.
    3. He said if Britain pulled out there would be massacres. Those in favor of an early pull-out jeered at him. He was right.
    4. The question is really how much the public would have tolerated. The idea that a modern libertarian view of things would have been politically feasible is anachronistic. Thatcher herself could not have made Britain in 1951-55 an anti-socialist country. Like FDR in the 30s, I think Churchill in the early 50s was a brake on worse tendencies. I blame the entire British ruling elite for not having anyone like Ludwig Erhardt around who actually understood some economics.
    5. 1945 was hopeless. The country wanted socialism, and wanted Churchill out as a way to put the war behind them. Don't know enough about 1950 to say.
    6. Invading Italy did not prolong the war. A 1943 invasion of France was not possible. The alternative was inaction. Italy happened by default. Was Churchill really the architect of occupation policy in Italy? And was there anything anyone could do to Southern Italy to make it an enterprising and productive place? I blame the Normans more than Churchill for the condition of southern Italy.
    7. The entire war cabinet supported it. The execution was poor all the way down the line. Had the Navy been more thrustful, according to the book "A Peace to End All Peace", the Turkish shore batteries were almost out of ammunition. One wonders how things would have gone if Constantinople had been under the guns of the Navy in 1915, and Turkey forced out of the war, and a sea route to Russia opened up. That said, it should have been wound up sooner, but by then Churchill was no longer making the decisions.
    8. He rightly feared that Anthony wasn't up to it. Churchill senile was better than Eden with most of his marbles.

    None of this really says much about whether Churchill was a conservative. I think the answer is a qualified yes. He was always an outsider in his party, but he was a defining presence in his party and it really makes little sense to say he was not a conservative in a party affiliation sense. Was he a conservative ideologically? On economics, he was not a modern conservative, but then again no one was in those days. Hayek was a writer of a best-seller but had no influence or following and Friedman at that point had chalk on his back giving lectures at the University of Chicago. It was the intellectual high water era of democratic socialism. Hard to hold that against him. Was he a conservative in any other way, ideologically? Yes, he was. He tried to "conserve" the things he thought were of value in his country and in the world, and he did that mostly by opposing those forces which presented a mortal threat to his country and his civilization.

    Spinmaster, not statesman? No. Facts won't support that. He could have gone along with things in the 30s instead of being a gadfly and a crank. He took the harder road because he thought he was right. Not at all the modern spirit of the spinmasters.

    Conservative enough, I think.

  3. Helen Says:
  4. Taxcutter's list is a bit of a mish-mash, apart from mistaking Attlee for Asquith. Some of it was Churchill's fault, some of it was not. Losing the 1945 election was not precisely his fault as the country was turning away from what it saw the mess of the inter-war years. The last issue of the Journal had a very good article about the campaign and the way Labour used the "guilty men" theme. The Conservatives should have fought back, of course.

    Also creating economic growth by accident is the best any government can do. You are not suggesting that it is the government that creates economic growth. As long as it gets out of the way.

    The point about Churchill, I think, that he was absolutely useless in any position except the one: prime minister at a time of national emergency. (And no, I don't think invading Italy prolonged the war either. There could have been no invasion of France in 1943.

    As for whether he was a Conservative, that is rather a different. Somewhere along the line Conservatism must include small government, light regulation and low taxation as well as defence of the realm and a belief in parliamentary government. Churchill had none of those. There were many in the Conservative Party and quite high up, as well, who went along with Hayek's ideas and wanted to fight socialism. Churchill chose none of them for his Cabinet and put Monckton in charge of labour relations.

    You cannot, on the one hand, praise him for being able to stand up to the party in the thirties and excuse him for not being able to do that in the forties and fifties (or twenties).

  5. With regards Churchill's role in the Gold Standard, it seems if anything he was one of the most sceptical movers and shakers in the economy. However nearly all the "superior wisdom" of the day was in favour of the return to Gold.

    Was Churchill wrong for the Exchequer? If so then who should have had it? The achievements of the Chamberlains in that government suggest that Neville made the right choice and neither brother was misdeployed (if anything, both had arguably their most successful period of office). Jix? Probably better to have him at the Home Office. Horne was incompatible with Baldwin. Looking at the list of the 1924 Cabinet very few other names spring to mind as natural choices.

  6. Anonymous Says:
  7. We seem to have three debates going: first whether Churchill's earlier ministerial career showed any quality whatsoever, second whether he was a Conservative, and third about the return to gold. None address the nature of Churchill's 1951 Government. Conservatism is, of course, a broad church, but late 20th century Conservatives as opposed to their protectionist predecessors have been economic liberals. Although many Conservatives have been suspicious of the welfare state, a strong strain of Conservatism has valued social cohesiveness and favoured some form of social welfare and regualtory legislation to ameliorate the consequences of unbridled economic liberalism. Churchill surely fits into both these traditions. His defintion of what social policy should aim at, the safety net and the ladder, is clearly not egalitarian and seems to me to sit squarely in the Conservative tradition. And of course in Baldwin's second government, he was the great free trader (the issue on which he had earlier left a predominantly protectionist party). Incidentally, when he put the case against protecting the iron and steel industry in 1925, his arguments were a good deal more economically sophisticated than those put by senior civil servants, one of whom was Permanent Secretary to the Treasury!!

    Although he felt at sea with modern (Keynesian) economics, he backed both free trade and a broadly economic liberal version of Keynesianism - indeed he backed Butler initially over ROBOT until headed off by Eden and Cherwell, essentially on political grounds.

    Churchill put the sceptic's case about the return to gold in 1925, but in the end accepted the argument that managed exchange rates were the best route back to a restoration of international trade, a perfectly compatible position with free trade.

    Floating rates have become the norm so it is worth reminding ourselve just how recently we have come to accept that they are not destabilising and conducive to inflation - and there remain genuine doubts about the issue of whether they are too easy a route out for politicians anxious to avoid the odium of sound money policies. Churchill thought a fixed exchange rate shackled us to reality - again probably a Conservative view.

    Jix, although a wiser man than his reputation suggests, was probably not the right candidate for the Treasury and Neville Chamberlain did not want it. Although the reasons for Churchill's appointment were essentially political, he was clearly more than capable of doing the job and his record looks to me more than defensible. He suffered from the predominantly Keynesian historiography of the post Second World War historiography that has slowly got unpicked and from an official biographer, who was less interested in economics than in Churchill's other roles.

    I come back to my challeng about the 1951 Government. To my mind it differs as chalk from chesse from what went on under Macmillan, but then Macmillan was essentially a protectionist and corporatist, a disciple perhaps of Leo Amery.

    And of course it was Leo's son who observed that Churchill's government in 1951 had come into office pledged to get out of GATT and stay in Suez and had stayed in GATT and got out of Suez.

  8. Helen Says:
  9. Can't resist this. I re-read the entire correspondence and noted again the comment about Churchill shooting strikers (all right, when in Asquith's government). Is that Tonypandy, we are talking about, by any chance? Because if it is, that is a myth.

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