Winston Churchill, Forgotten Progressive?
Beyond his conservative bona fides, Churchill was a social welfare reformer who demanded public responsibility from the privileged classes.
Winston Churchill’s flair for controversy endures in his legacy. In Britain and America, attitudes toward Churchill’s place in history are polarized. Conservatives celebrate Churchill as a champion of free peoples and free markets; progressives condemn him as a warmonger and reactionary. Such a dichotomy misrepresents Churchill’s legacy: It ignores his career both as a reformer who helped to establish the social welfare state and as a radical who demanded public responsibility from the privileged classes. But obscuring Churchill’s fights against inequality distorts his career and impedes our understanding of how elite politicians interact with reform movements. A more nuanced interpretation of Churchill challenges the Right’s custody of his legacy, and explores why today’s Left is so averse to accepting him as a forebearer.
George Watson’s 2011 “Forgotten Churchill” essay has helped to reintroduce the public to Churchill’s radicalism. Churchill biographies written both by the late William Manchester and Paul Reid in 2012 and also by Andrew Roberts in 2018 examined Churchill’s reforming energies. These authors have highlighted Churchill’s contributions to unemployment insurance, minimum wage thresholds, maximum workdays, progressive taxation, humane prisons, and universal public education. They balance the image of the pistol-toting, whiskey-swilling, cigar-clenching warrior who snarls “we shall never surrender,” against a humanitarian one who finds “little glory in an empire which can rule the waves and is unable to flush its toilets.”
Churchill seems an unlikely candidate for a social reformer. Winston Spencer-Churchill entered the world in 1874 in Blenheim Palace. His father Lord Randolph was a leading Conservative politician; his grandfather was the eighth Duke of Marlborough. He was educated at Eton College and Sandhurst Military Academy. He served in nearly every colonial war waged by Britain in his youth. A young Churchill averred that workers ought to be churchgoers because “nothing can give them a good time here, but it makes them more contented to think that they will get one hereafter.” When Churchill defected from the Conservatives to the Liberals in 1904, his motivations included a protest over protectionism and a pique with Prime Minister Arthur Balfour, whose uncle had wrecked Lord Randolph’s career.
Churchill embraced social welfare after he had crossed the aisle. Through reading Beatrice Webb, George Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells, Churchill came to confront the inequalities of Edwardian Britain. In his youth, one percent of the British population owned 67 percent of national capital. A third of Londoners were chronically malnourished; infant mortality stood at 163 deaths per 1,000 births. For those who fell sick, suffered injury, lost a job, or simply grew old, social insurance was mostly a question of private charity: Indigent Britons since 1834 could only look to the dubious mercies of the workhouse and the stigmatizing Poor Law system.
Meanwhile, David Lloyd George’s influence would also prove to be formative for Churchill. Weaned on the radicalism of nonconformist, working-class Wales, Lloyd George attracted Churchill with his plans for a social safety net along the lines of Bismarck’s Germany, insuring against unemployment, injury, sickness, and old age. Churchill began to emulate Lloyd George’s oratory, demanding in 1907 that the state “concern itself with the care of the sick and the aged, and, above all, with the children.” He exhorted the government to nationalize railroads and to become “the reserve employer of labor.” Churchill claimed to foresee that “the fortunes of liberalism and labor are inseparably interwoven.”
Churchill became Lloyd George’s Cabinet ally, legislative collaborator, and parliamentary defender. He authored legislation setting a maximum workday for miners, instituted trade boards to fix minimum wages for laborers, and sponsored labor exchanges supporting job seekers and union organizers. Churchill helped draft and defend Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” of 1909. To finance old age pensions and (limited) public health insurance, the budget levied new taxes on the aristocracy. Against Conservative charges that the budget would smother personal initiative, he retorted: “You do not make a man self-reliant by crushing him under a steam roller.” Far from sowing dependency, Churchill argued, the state would encourage industriousness by giving working people “a practical assurance that those efforts will be crowned with success.”
Churchill’s fight against economic inequality spurred him to battle against political and legal inequality. When parliament’s upper chamber, the hereditary House of Lords, flouted the convention that the Lords accept financial measures passed by the House of Commons by rejecting Lloyd George’s People’s Budget, Churchill denounced the Lords as “one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, absentee.” To his aristocrat peers, Churchill had plunged headlong into tub-thumping demagoguery. For betraying his class, they branded Churchill the “Blenheim rat.” Exasperated by what he saw as the Lord’s unconstitutional stand, Churchill informed Prime Minister H.H. Asquith that “the time has come for the total abolition of the House of Lords.” Asquith eventually settled for the Budget’s passage and reform of the Lords’ veto. Yet it was Churchill’s thunderbolts against class privilege that raised Liberal morale and bolstered Asquith’s negotiations with the Lords.
As home secretary, Churchill gained his opportunity to remedy inequalities in the legal system after taking on the role in 1910. He abolished flogging and introduced libraries and lectures for prison inmates. By instituting debt repayment programs, he reduced incarceration for indebtedness by ninety-five percent. He similarly reduced imprisonment for drunkenness by ninety-eight percent by replacing incarceration with fines. On debt, Churchill believed in uprooting “a vicious system of credit, based on no real security” that targeted working families.
After 1914, Churchill’s career was dominated by questions of war and peace rather than by domestic reform. Nonetheless, Churchill never lost his sympathy for social welfare causes. In 1943, Churchill authorized the transformative Beveridge Report, which proposed a national insurance program to subsidize wage loss, maternity care, pensions, disability, housing, education, widows’ benefits, health insurance, funeral expenses, and other needs. The Beveridge Report was the lodestar of Clement Attlee’s Labor government in 1945, helping shape its foremost achievement, the establishment of the National Health Service. Churchill also enacted the landmark Education Act of 1944, guaranteeing free education until the end of high school.
Seeking office in 1951, Churchill did not campaign on reversing Labor policies, but on ameliorating working-class hardships more effectively than his left-wing opponents. He promised to construct 300,000 new homes, and to levy a new tax on excess corporate profits. The New York Times reported, “the Labor Party program proposes to carry the nation still farther along the road to socialism . . . the Conservative program proposes to recoil somewhat from socialism but not the whole distance.” Over time, Churchill’s reformism moderated, but he never became a reactionary.
The most stalwart progressive could take pride in Churchill’s social welfare record. Why, then, has Churchill come in for criticism from the Left? The progressive critique of Churchill has two strands: The first faults his imperialism, finding in it romantic hubris and racial prejudice; the second faults his elitism, finding in it a paternalistic noblesse oblige. Accordingly, some conservatives claim that Churchill is the victim of a contemporary left-wing dogma that fails to distinguish between past and present values. In his biography, Andrew Roberts argues that whether Churchill was “what we would in modern terms describe as a racist,” is beside the point. Like “almost every one of his age, class and background,” Roberts explains, Churchill “saw mankind in terms of a hierarchy in which Europeans were self-evidently in a higher state of national and historical development than Africans and Asians.” But this fails to take into account how contemporary critics also faulted Churchill for his imperialism and elitism. His liberal colleagues mistrusted him. His socialist opponents detested him. Far from being ahistorical interventions, critiques of Churchill from the Left are rooted in the judgments of his historical peers.
Beginning during Asquith’s pre-war government, a series of controversies exposed tensions between Churchill and the Left. First was the Tonypandy riots. In November 1910, 25,000 coal miners staged a walkout in Rhondda, Wales. Responding to mounting disorder, Home Secretary Churchill deployed soldiers against the miners. Two died. Churchill was pilloried by union leaders and socialist politicians. Keir Hardie fulminated that a Liberal like Churchill “will give you insurance bills, they will give you all sorts of soothing syrups to keep you quiet, but in the end your Liberal Party, just like your Tory Party, is the Party of the rich and exists to protect the rich.” Alternatively, Liberals like Charles Masterman murmured that Churchill suffered a “whiff of grapeshot tactics and a lust for blood.”
Such misgivings deepened the following year. Writing to King George V about industrial unrest, Churchill reasoned that soldiers “should not be called on except as a last resort but if called on should be given a free hand and the mob should be made to fear them.” The point was hardly academic: Churchill mobilized 50,000 troops for a showdown with strikers. Violence was averted only because Lloyd George found a compromise with union leaders. Had Churchill “just a little bit more knowledge of how to handle masses of men,” Ramsay MacDonald chastised in parliament, and a “better instinct of what civil liberty does mean,” there would have been no crisis.
By 1925, Churchill had officially rejoined the Conservative Party. His rhetoric especially became abusive of the Labor Party. In the 1945 general election, he declared that Labor’s platform implied “the destruction of the whole of our existing system of society, and of life, and of labor.” He darkly hinted that Labor’s goal was “the creation and enforcement of systems borrowed from foreign lands and alien minds.” Churchill claimed that Labor could not “afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent.” Labor’s rhyming rejoinder: “One Empire, One Leader, One Folk! / Is the Tory campaign masterstroke.”
Some friction between Labor and Churchill was unavoidable: Liberals always remembered that Churchill was at one point a Conservative defector. “Don’t forget that the aristocrat is still there, submerged but latent,” A.G. Gardiner cautioned. In Masterman’s estimate, Churchill “desired in England a state of things where a benign upper class dispensed benefits to an industrious, bien pensant, and grateful working class.” Whereas radicalism was “Lloyd George’s native tongue,” Churchill, according to Violet Asquith, “had merely learned the language.” Liberals’ fears were confirmed when Churchill returned to the Conservative Party. Like Beatrice Webb, Churchill’s Liberal colleagues admitted he was “brilliantly able,” but worried he was “a phrase monger,” who took up causes out of ambition and would cast them aside for greater glory.
Churchill’s decisions influenced not only millions of Britons, but also hundreds of millions of British colonial subjects. Churchill’s elitism and imperialism are starkest in his treatment of these subjects, as are his prejudices.
Churchill’s contrasting approaches to India and Ireland betrays some racial prejudice. Churchill opposed Dominion-status for India in the 1930s, deeming the subcontinent incapable of self-government. He privately wrote, “I hate Indians...they are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” He denounced Mahatma Gandhi as a “malignant subversive fanatic” and wished to see him “lain bound hand and foot at the gates of Delhi and then trampled on by an enormous elephant.” Histrionic or not, such sentiments contrast sharply with Churchill’s evolving views on Ireland and its anticolonial leader, Michael Collins. Under Asquith, Churchill espoused Irish Home Rule, a close equivalent to the self-government he never countenanced for India. After battling the Irish Republican Army, Churchill negotiated with Collins to recognize Irish autonomy. While first inveighing against Collins as he did Gandhi, Churchill later recognized Collins’ interests as legitimate and praised his courage. Churchill never improved his view of Gandhi. Towards Ireland, Churchill sought goodwill, endorsing the transfer of naval bases and the strengthening of commercial relations. In India, his legacy includes the Bengal famine of 1943, in which the diversion of supplies from Bengal to Great Britain contributed to the deaths of three million people.
Additionally, Churchill presided over counterinsurgency campaigns in Malaya and Kenya that are notorious for their severity: In Kenya, some 1.5 million native people were confined to detention camps and villages. Another 150,000 were interned in prisons described as “British gulags,” in which torture was prevalent.
Churchill is hardly unique among British leaders in making cruel or unwise choices: witness Antony Eden’s debacle at Suez or Margaret Thatcher’s dirty war in the North of Ireland. Nor is it true that anti-imperialists governed the British Empire humanely or wisely. A Labor government oversaw Britain’s disastrous withdrawal from India. Lloyd George’s Aegean meddling contributed to war and ethnic cleansing between Greece and Turkey. Yet such context does not excuse Churchill’s failure to exercise the same imaginative energy on imperial policy that he applied to social welfare. Even if a trace of the aristocrat never left Churchill, he subordinated his class prejudice to social reform. On imperial questions, however, Churchill never questioned his racial prejudice.
The variegation in Churchill’s values and choices complicate the impulse to ascribe to past statesmen “progressive” or “reactionary” labels. Churchill’s infringements on property rights taint his conservative identity; his transgressions against human rights damn his progressive credentials. The sympathy Churchill gained for workers never translated into empathy for the aspirations of Britain’s nonwhite subjects. His contributions to the social welfare state sits alongside his complicity in colonial atrocities. Both sit alongside his heroic defiance of fascism. His life had much that was good; some that was ill. Altogether, nothing about him permits reductive description of the whole.
An honest portrait of Churchill depicts a man with many gifts, some serious flaws, and various complex beliefs. To appreciate a life like Churchill’s, we must combine moral imagination and historical observation to interpret values, situate decisions, and judge consequences. This is not easy, and it is only made harder by anachronisms like progressive and reactionary labels. Churchill’s life should thus motivate the study of how the assumptions, surroundings, and influences of powerful personalities act upon and within changing societies: It is the only sure means to gain insight into how great personalities acted on and in their worlds of experience.
Eamonn Bellin is the academic programs and editorial associate at the Alexander Hamilton Society, a nonprofit promoting foreign policy education and careers in public service for young people.
Image: The Minister of Munitions Winston Churchill meets female workers at Georgetown's filling works near Glasgow during a visit on October 9 1918. (Imperial War Museum)
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