Argumentation That Churchill Was A Failed Politician Prior To 1935

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Sir Winston Churchill (1874 – 1965) mobilised the English language to stiffen the sinews of a nation facing terrible defeat and the prospect of a long war. Churchill is accredited with, and subsequently known for, pulling the United Kingdom through World War Two. Yet, it is this indispensable achievement that obscures so much else about Churchill, diverting attention from much else that he undertook. Such a positive legacy is at odds with what is considered by some to be a deeply negative political record prior to 1935 (the year in which his unrelenting focus on the growing Nazi threat during his years in the political wilderness was vindicated). Indeed, Robert Rhodes James, one of Churchill’s biographers, writes: “By the end of 1933 Churchill was widely regarded as a failed politician, in whom no real trust could be reasonably placed: by June 1935, these opinions had been fortified stronger”. Geoffrey Best believes that it is so numerous to state Churchill’s controversies that “to list these matters is to sketch the outline of Churchill’s public life”: his ardent promotion of the Dardanelles expedition, his emphatic interventions in the Russian Revolution, and his bigoted charge against the Indian movement for self-government. A ‘failed’ politician is one who had no beneficial impact on domestic or foreign policy either at the time or over time. Through assessing Churchill’s prosecution of his domestic and foreign agenda, and the consequences of his subsequent legislation, it is possible to determine whether Churchill can be considered a ‘failure’ prior to 1935. In fact, in doing so, it can be asserted that the successes of Churchill’s early career are often overlooked and that he should be exonerated for some of his perceived failures. Thus, it is unjustifiable to argue that Churchill was a failed politician prior to 1935.

Despite the fact that Churchill lacks the reputation of a serious social reformer, which would suggest that he was a failure in this regard, when his role in implementing social policy is thoroughly scrutinised, it can be argued that he was actually successful in helping to introduce a policy change which shifted the role the state played. His years at the Colonial Ministry (1905-1908), Board of Trade (1908-10), Home Office (1910-1911) and even at the Admiralty (1911-1915) were indicative of a deep desire to improve the condition of the working class; indeed, his long-lasting social legacy refutes the idea that Churchill was a failed politician prior to 1935. Social reforms undertaken by Churchill as President of the Board of Trade were wide-ranging, including the Labour Exchanges Act (1909) to help those looking for work and the Trade Boards Act (1909) to prosecute employers who were exploiting their workers. As President of the Board of Trade, Churchill was responsible for overseeing the drawing up and parliamentary advancement of the aforementioned legislation. The Labour Exchanges made a significant impact on unemployment by providing an easy method of letting employers advertise their jobs. By the outbreak of World War One there were 430 Labour Exchanges, providing an average of 3,000 jobs per day. It does need to be recognised that Labour Exchanges had limitations, such as their emphasis on finding temporary and low paid work which failed to reduce poverty significantly. Nevertheless, on balance they were a success, and found employment for over 25% of those who were listed on them. Trade Boards could set minimum wage criteria that were legally enforceable, especially in trades with a history of low wages due to surplus of available workers, the presence of female workers, or a lack of skills. The Trade Boards Act, by means of successful gradualism, would eventually cover 370,000 employees and was, in a way that was belonging to Churchill, a very Tory Democrat measure. Indeed, so successful was the bill that it was later expanded in 1912 to mining industries and again in 1918 to incorporate a wider range of industries. Churchill’s support for the working class extended to sponsoring the 1911 Mines Act, which lifted the minimum age for employment in the mines from thirteen to fourteen, improving training standards and regulation of the system of haulage. Similarly regarding the scope of the Trade Boards Act, Churchill’s Mines Act was followed by a series of bills to further improve working practices with additional Coal Mines Acts in 1912, 1913, 1914 and 1919. Ramsay McDonald would go on to describe it as “a boon to our mining community”. It is particularly significant that this praise came from Ramsay McDonald, a future Labour Party leader and member of the opposition. In fact, the Act had the effect of weakening the Labour party’s standing; the Labour Party had to support the reform as a key representative of the mining community, and was subsequently criticised by revolutionary socialists and syndicalists. Although Churchill’s reforms weren’t flawless, namely with reference to the Labour Exchanges, his role in alleviating social standards was monumental, especially when considering the subsequent legislation that would emanate from his bills. This was the mark of a successful politician.

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In attempting to emulate Germany’s comprehensive system of social security, Churchill promoted further substantially-beneficial social legislation whilst occupying peripheral offices, demonstrating a clear dedication to reform and repudiating the idea that he was a failed politician. Jenkins states, “it was a tribute to his bounding energy that on top of the responsibilities of a major department […] he should in addition have made time for this legacy of his recent past”. Indeed, a high point of Churchill’s social policy was his leading role in the establishment of Lloyd-George’s National Insurance Act (1911), which introduced a compulsory state-supported system of insurance against illness and unemployment for those earning under £160 per year, completed while he occupied the admiralty. In April 1909, two years prior to its introduction, Churchill circulated a memorandum that he had composed to the Cabinet, advocating for “this scheme [which was] the counterpart and companion of the national system of Labour Exchanges”. Marvin Rintala states, “[Lloyd George and Churchill] were the only two members of the Cabinet totally committed to Lloyd George’s Budget”. This view has merit; Churchill was indisputably at the forefront of the composition of the National Insurance Act, a view which was concurred in a 1924 election leaflet which affirmed: “With the single exception of Mr Lloyd George, no public man alive has been responsible for more important acts of social legislation than Mr Churchill”. The Act covered 70% of the work force (families and the unwaged were not covered) and was psychologically important, removing the need for unemployed workers to rely on the stigmatised social welfare provisions of the Poor Law. The Observer welcomed the legislation as “by far the largest and best project of social reform ever yet proposed by a nation” and the British Medical Journal concurred, stating that the Act was “one of the greatest attempts at social legislation which the present generation has known”. Indeed both statements are accurate; National Insurance would insure 14.7 million people through 236 local insurance committees and 23,5000 branches by October 1913, covering a breadth of trades that had not yet been seen. Churchill, openly mimicking the existing German model, was often charged with unoriginality, yet this was indicative of a determination to pick up other, clearly-successful ideas and implement them. That is not to suggest that Churchill lacked any radicalism; parties of all persuasions accepted that the liberal policies, in which Churchill was integral, were here to stay. The 1920 Unemployment Insurance Act, a continuation of the one which Churchill fronted a decade earlier, saw the Conservatives accept the idea of New Liberalism and change its tack, undoubtedly a form of flattery. The introduction of the National Health Service (1946) would further build on National Insurance, this time under a Labour government and completing a full-house of cross-party acceptance of what Churchill began. For its time, the National Insurance Act was a radical shift in the status quo and remains a feature of our modern state.

Churchill’s reforms were so significant that, in Jenkins’s words they “gave Churchill a substantial record as a social reformer” and Best considers him “one of the leading lights of the Liberal movement for social and democratic reform”. Best’s assertion has particular validity. Churchill was hugely active (as demonstrated not only by the fact that he was a leading figure in social-reforming departments but also by his numerous speeches and memoranda) in the campaign for the early formation of welfare policies against significant obstacles, and in doing so played a role in invoking mass political upheaval (namely the Constitutional Crisis of 1909), in order to succeed in implementing his policies. Certainly, Churchill established a reputation as one of the foremost social reformers of the era. His desire to “strive for nobles causes” was put ahead of party advantage; the Liberal Party paid a heavy price in losing its majority and having to revisit Home Rule purely for what was perceived as the national interest. Liberal politician Charles Masterman claimed to his wife Lucy, “Winston is full of the poor, whom he has just discovered”; indeed, Churchill seemed impervious to the fact that it was his own class he was threatening to assault. This was best exemplified by his negotiation of much of the Parliament Bill (August 1911); sacrificing the affection of the Tory Diehards and many of his own class in the pursuit of a fully functioning modern democracy. Churchill viewed his legislation as evolutionary, Tory Democrat measures, which would make Britain stronger in future crises, especially in the event of war. Indeed, Churchill was one of the leading proponents of ‘war socialism’ in the First World War and was able to look past his long-held opposition to tariffs due to Treasury requirements; he was willing to put successful prosecution of huge tasks above all his principles. He was undoubtedly a key advocate of New Liberalism and, if you measure politicians by their impact, Churchill played a critical role in paving the way for the welfare state, the effects of which can still be seen today. Thus, the wide scope and positive impact of Churchill’s social reform reject the idea that he was a failed politician prior to 1935.

Nevertheless, as is true for much of Churchill’s early career, his social reforming mistakes left far more of an impression than his successes. As such, he is often viewed as a ‘failed’ politician not due the quantity of his mistakes, but the impact of them. As Chancellor of the Exchequer (1924-9), despite delivering five budgets and increasing the purchasing power of wages equivalent to a remission of £160,000,000 indirect taxation, Churchill’s legacy was the disastrous 1925 decision to return to the Gold Standard, which former MP Andrew Turnbull referred to as a “historic error”. Indeed, the seismic consequences of the British Gold Standard Act failed to solve any of Britain’s underling economic ills and brought on economic depression (a result of the increased pressure on the already-suffering traditional export trades), unemployment and the 1926 General Strike (which came at a cost of £800 million); it is certainly admissible to consider Churchill’s five years at the Exchequer an abject failure purely as a result of this decision. Yet, it is unsubstantiated to suggest that there existed no rationale for the return or that Churchill could have withstood the pressure from Britain’s economic decision-makers. Indeed, Ryan Brown claims that, “in this historical context, the Gold Standard offered the best solution to the complexities of international trade”. Furthermore, any other decision would have been politically impracticable; the Bank of England forced the return upon Churchill and set the pound at an overambitious pre-war rate ($4.86). Keynes, who famously published The Economic Consequences of Mr Churchill and thus was hardly a Churchill enthusiast, claimed, “[Churchill] was deafened by the clamorous voices of conventional finance; and […] gravely misled by his experts”. Montagu Norman, the powerful new Governor of the Bank of England from 1920 to 1944, believed that in the opinion of “educated and reasonable men” there was no alternative to a return to Gold. Otto Niemeyer, the financial controller at the Treasury and a future director of the Bank of England, concurred; stating that to dodge the issue now would be to show that “our nerve had failed when the stage was set”. The Conservatives, Liberals and even Labour had all promised a return, hoping it would stabilise prices; a viewpoint that was bolstered by Germany’s and the US’s return to the Gold Standard by early 1925. Throughout 1925 Churchill familiarised himself with both sides of the argument, making attempts to obtain a balanced view (on the 17th of March he summoned Keynes and McKenna – two Gold Standard sceptics – to debate with Bradbury and Niemeyer) and act without impetuousness. The Treasury was against him, the Bank was against him, the Select Committee was against him, and Snowden, his Labour ‘shadow’, was against him. Nevertheless, reluctant convert although he had been, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill must take responsibility for what was, in his words, “the biggest blunder of [his] life” and what has been attributed to the greatest mistake of the Baldwin government. The economic turmoil that was inflicted upon the country as a result of the decision to return to the Gold Standard was certainly a mark of a ‘failed’ politician.

Churchill’s prosecution of his foreign policy prior to 1935 can be seen to be characterised more by failure than by success; the damage he invoked to the reputation of the Royal Navy is deserving of the label ‘failed politician’. When the outbreak of World War One came, the mentality and the equipment of the Royal Navy, which fell under Churchill’s responsibility as First Lord of the Admiralty (1911-1915), left a lot to be desired. Churchill had four First Sea Lords across his four years in the Admiralty: Sir Arthur Wilson, Sir Francis Bridgeman, Prince Louis of Battenberg and Sir John Fisher. The ceaseless shuffling of the top naval commanders was hardly designed to inspire confidence either in naval planning or in Churchill’s judgement. Indeed, confidence in Churchill’s judgement continued to be eroded following the deaths of 3,000 sailors after three elderly British armoured cruisers were sunk by submarine attacks off the Dutch coast (22nd September 1914) and the South Atlantic squadron was destroyed off the coast of Chile (1st November 1914). The Navy was further debased after German ships slipped past the North Sea blockade and bombarded Hartlepool and Scarborough; an inexplicable humiliation for the world’s greatest naval power. The reputation of the Royal Navy was of the utmost importance during the early stages of the war; it was vitally significant when many countries were still unsure about taking sides. Thus Churchill, much like when assessing the return to the Gold Standard, must take responsibility as First Lord of the Admiralty for the failure to maintain international confidence in the oldest of the UK’s armed services. The greatest contributor to this erosion of confidence, however, was Churchill’s failure of the Dardanelles campaign (February 1915 – January 1916). Despite pioneering an undoubtedly legitimate central premise (to open another front to avoid continuing ‘chewing barbed wire in Flanders’ and help supply Russia), Churchill is held accountable for the non-fulfilment of an integrated naval and military operation from the outset, advocating for a solely naval attack at the War Council. If it had been successful, the importance of the results would have justified the severe loss; indeed, no one doubted that the political advantages of success would have been immense. Even Clement Atlee, a political opponent, admitted “the strategic conception was sound”. Yet, the consequences of the failed Dardanelles campaign were huge and came with very little respite; not only did the British Empire suffer 205,000 casualties, but the offensive incurred another huge blow to the reputation of the Allied war command, hampering any possible alliance with the undecided Balkan states (eg. Bulgaria and Greece) that had been a motivating factor for the campaign in the first place.  

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