Winston Churchill

Churchill was one of the greatest Prime Ministers that Britain has ever had. However, his political career was fraught with contradictions, difficulties and setbacks that would have destroyed the careers of many lesser men.

Churchill was the son of a relatively famous Chancellor of the Exchequer, Randolph Churchill. Randolph never quite managed to be classified as an A-list political heavyweight. He always seemed to manage to setback his career at just the wrong time. This was a trait that nearly caught out Winston on a too few many occaisions.

Winston's young career was actually that of an army officer. He soon developed a reputation as something of an action man - always wishing to be where the action was. He soon found service on the North West Frontier, Sudan and most famously of all in South Africa. It was during the Boer war that Churchill was captured when a British train was ambushed. Churchill played no small part in that particular action where he was responsible for uncoupling some of the carriages and clearing a portion of the line. This at least allowed a number of British soldiers to escape. However, it was the brazeness of Churchill's escape from a Boer POW camp and his epic journey over hundreds of miles to Mozambique that caught the world's media attention and turned Winston into something of a celebrity.

It was not long after his return to England that he used some of this celebrity status to gain the Conservative nomination to fight for a seat in parliament. This started his political career - although it was to be one with many ups and downs. In fact, it was not long that he fell out with his own party over the issue of protectionism and imperial preference. Winston believed strongly in free trade and so found himself identifying more and more with the Liberal opposition. In fact, he changed parties at just the right time as the Liberal party was about to embark on a long period of political dominance. It was within this party that Churchill got the first taste of ministerial power: in the Colonial Office, the Board of Trade and then as Home Secretary.

The Great War was to severely test the ministerial expertise of Churchill, especially as he found himself at the head of the crucially important Admiralty. Unfortunately, his tenure at that post did not go well. The Royal Navy failed to make any decisive victories in the opening period of the war - in fact, it seemed to constantly be losing out to the smaller, inexperienced German fleet. To make matters worse, Churchill was responsible for the disastrous assault on the Dardanelles in Turkey. This supposedly bold stroke was supposed to block the deadlock on the Western Front. Instead, it merely created a new trench system in the stiflingly hot Mediterranean theatre. And also, it brought a new belligerent into the war against Britain.

Almost as a kind of pennance, Churchill re-joined the regular British Army and went to France as a Battalion officer. Whilst no-one doubted his bravery and his concern for his troops, Churchill was fortunate to have been posted to a quiet sector of the front. His unit saw little action whilst he was the commander.

It was not too long before the Liberal government of Asquith was forced to resign and to be replaced by a new coalition led by Lloyd George. Fortunately, Lloyd George soon asked for Churchill to return to the government as the minister for munitions. It was here that Churchill showed his penchant for unconventional thinking and ideas - the best example of which was the tank.

After the war ended, Churchill continued to play a part in Lloyd George's government as the secretary of state for war and the air (again showing his taste for the unusual). However, Lloyd George's coalition administration was not a happy one and it was not long before the Conservative element (by far the largest element) pulled out and the Liberal Party split between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith. Churchill tested the waters to see if he might be welcomed back to his old Conservative Party. He did so by standing as a 'constitutionalist' in the 1924 election. It was not long before the very widely experienced Churchill was rewarded by his old party by being made Chancellor of the Exchequer. This was not to be a straight-forward period of ministerial control as he presided (against his better judgement) over the re-introduction of the Gold Standard. This would seriously harm Britain's industry and would lead indirectly to the 1926 General Strike. He remained Chancellor until 1929.

Despite being regarded as a rather liberal Conservative, Churchill managed to fall out with the moderate Conservatives over two key issues in the 1930s. The first was over Home Rule for India. Something that the Imperial minded Churchill was dead against. The other issue was over rearmament and facing up to the European Dictators. Both of these issues gave Churchill a strange connection with the more right wing elements of the Conservative party. However, they also meant that he would remain on the sidelines of the Conservative dominated National Governments of the 1930s.

His consistent anti-appeasement stance meant that Churchill was one of the few politicians with any credibility when war was finally declared in 1939. The then Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain felt obliged to ask Churchill back into the Government. He actually returned to his old post at the Admiralty. And again, it seemed as if he presided over a disastrous and peripheral campaign in Norway. However, this time, the blame for the fiasco was laid on the shoulders of Chamberlain who felt duty bound to resign.

At this point it was not automatic that Churchill would be invited to be Prime Minister. Many Conservatives still did not trust Winston and preferred to have the more stable Lord Halifax as their leader. A combination of Halifax declining the offer and the coalition partners of the Labour Party favouring Churchill led to his appointment in 1940.

Few Prime Ministers could have been appointed at such a dangerous time for the country. The situation was precarious as the German Blitzkrieg cut through the French Army and threatened to trap the British Expeditionary France on the wrong side of the Channel. It was at this point that a remarkable series of War Cabinet meetings were held in secret where the members seriously debated the viability of continuing the war alone or whether to sue for peace. Churchill fought doggedly with Lord Halifax about continuing the war. The success of the Dunkirk evacuations (not known until after the meetings were over) seemed to bear out Churchill's dogged defiance. It was probably the most important decision made by any British politician - possibly in British history.

Britain was not out of the clear yet - a German invasion of Britain was still possible and a vicious air battle was carried out between the RAF and the Luftwaffe for control of the skies over Britain. A combination of Home field advantage (RAF planes could stay in the air longer), Radar, poor Luftwaffe tactics (bombing cities rather than airfields) and a remarkable increase in British aircraft production all helped to fight the German air force to a stand still. The Luftwaffe had not been destroyed, but they could not establish air superiority over Britain either. There would be no invasion of Britain.

Churchill was greatly relieved when the Germans turned their attention on the Russians in 1941 and then when the Japanese foolishly brought the Americans into the war in December of that year also. Apparently on hearing news of Pearl Harbour, Churchill remarked "So we have won this war after all!". His strategic understanding of the geo-political situation was to prove correct as the Germans and the Japanese were brought to their knees in 1945.

No-one was as shocked as Churchill was by the devastating defeat suffered by his Conservative party in 1945. In the middle of the Potsdam conference, Churchill had to bow out and hand over all authority to his war time Labour deputy Clement Attlee.

Several years spent writing his memoirs filled the following years before the Conservatives managed to regain power with a slim majority in 1951. He was well past his prime by this late time and he presided over a relatively quiet period in British political history. His main concern was with the new Atomic and Hydrogen bombs that were being developed. Perhaps earlier than most, he appreciated the danger that these weapons posed to all civilisation. This is perhaps a little ironic given the seminal role he played in creating the conditions and ideas of an Anti-Communist Cold War in the first place.

After stepping down in 1955, Churchill had a pleasant ten years of retirement. This was mostly spent in the South of France painting. Or as the guest of Aristotle Onassis on his luxurious cruiser. On his death in 1965, Churchill was afforded a rare State Funeral.

Winston Churchill Image
Churchill's Indian Summer
Anthony Seldon examines the post-war career of Winston Churchill
Great Lives: Churchill
A BBC audio program
Witness: Churchill's Funeral
A BBC audio program
items on ebay

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by Stephen Luscombe