Whenever one reads hyperventilating attacks on present-day politicians and their lack of fiscal probity as compared to past ones, one can be certain they come from people who have no knowledge of history. Let us set aside the particularly notorious cases such as Charles James Fox or David Lloyd George. Let us look at a man who is known for being less than honest in politics but not particularly dishonest in financial matters: Winston S. Churchill.
I have just finished reading Douglas Murray's excellent biography of Lord Alfred Douglas, Bosie (here is an excellent review of it by Miranda Seymour) and Churchill makes several appearances in it.
Oscar Wilde's Hyacinthus and "golden boy" outlived him by forty-five years and had a fascinating if chequered life, clouded by what seems to be hereditary mental problems and, of course, the famous case. Douglas Murray makes an excellent case for Bosie's poetical talent (I, for one, am going to find a collection and read it), for his initial loyalty to Wilde and for the unfairness of De Profundis, which has influenced so many writers in their analysis of the relationship. Wilde, himself, resumed his life with Bosie as soon as he came out of prison. Murray even manages to make sense of the complicated relationship between Bosie and Robbie Ross, usually the hero of the Wilde story (but then, he wrote much of it).
The book details Lord Alfred's "litigious and libellous" career that lasted from 1909 to 1924, the last of these being the case brought against him by Winston Churchill.
In 1921 Douglas
claimed that Winston Churchill was guilty of war profiteering and that while First Lord of the Admiralty he had, with the help of high profile Jews, conspired to murder Lord Kitchener. They had allegedly succeeded in 1916 when Kitchener was on board the Hampshire. The ship had been sailing for Russia where, according to Douglas, Kitchener would have replaced the 'Bolshevik Jews', who were then setting up the revolution that would come in the following y ear, with 'loyal men of British birth', thus 'nipping the Russian revolution in the bud'.Churchill at first ignored this farrago of nonsense, arguing, quite sensibly, that few people read it and by suing he would give unnecessary publicity to a little-known periodical. But in 1923 Douglas went further and publicly accused Churchill of war profiteering by publishing a false report of the Battle of Jutland in order to help some financiers (no doubt of Jewish origin, Bosie having become a virulent anti-Semite) to make money on the New York Stock Exchange and getting paid for this by Sir Ernest Cassel, a well known financier and philanthropist who had, as a matter of fact, converted to Catholicism just as Lord Alfred had done. Churchill's alleged reward was furniture that was worth £40,000.
Furthermore, the accusation about Kitchener's murder was repeated with fanciful details of a time bomb on board of the Hampshire.
This time Churchill had to sue. The case came to court in December 1923 and the first thing to be made clear was that by the time of the Battle of Jutland, Churchill had no connections with the Admiralty (this being post-Dardanelles) and could not have produced the false report.
According to Wikipedia:
As the attorney-general stated in court, on Churchill's behalf, there was no plot, no phoney communiqué, no stock market raid and no present of fine furniture.The phrase is accurate enough in words but not entirely so in reality. As Douglas Murray writes:
When Churchill took the stand he volunteered much information about his private finances so that the defence could not make anything of them. He admitted that Cassel had given him £500 as a wedding present in 1908 and t hat, after the battle of Jutland, Cassel had furnished him with a library. None of this information had come out in the Morning Post case [when Douglas first aired his accusations and was found to have some justification for them] and many members of the public were unaware that such gifts were commonplace for politicians.The truth is that many members of the public and the media are still unaware that such gifts have always been commonplace for politicians.
Lord Alfred Douglas was found guilty of criminal libel and went to prison for six months, another turning point in his life and literary career. While in Wormwood Scrubs he wrote, when his health allowed him, his last major sequence of sonnets, In Excelsis, a defiant response to De Profundis. His career in litigation and libel was over and he started reassessing, yet again, his relationship with Wilde and other people. In particular, he became more sympathetic to Churchill with whom he exchanged a few friendly notes later. The last of this was a letter in December 1944 from a very ill Bosie in which he pleaded with the Prime Minister not to betray the Poles. Churchill reassured him in his reply that he would not do so and added a hand-written note wishing a recovery. Alas, Bosie never really recovered and died in March 1945. Neither did Churchill stand up for the Poles.