"Churchill and the Conservative Party"

A Lecture by


delivered at

The Winston Churchill Memorial
Westminster College
Fulton, Missouri
April 5, 1987


Copyright Lord Blake 1987



President Saunders, Mr. Kemper, Ladies and Gentlemen, it is a very great honor to be asked to give the Sixth Crosby Kemper Churchill Memorial Lecture in this splendid building which recreates the golden age of English architecture. It is also a very great privilege to receive the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from Westminster College. It is something in which I shall take a great pride for the rest of my life. I have chosen for my theme an aspect of Winston Churchill's extraordinary career which tends to be forgotten both in Britain and America. We are inclined to think that it began in 1940. But he was sixty-five by then — an age at which most people have reached retirement. My theme is his relations with the Conservative party. After 1940 they were relatively uncomplicated. Before 1940 it was a different story.

* * * * *

Churchill's relations with the party he came to lead were always ambivalent — more so than is usually appreciated. He was much influenced by his father's political career. Lord Randolph Churchill was a brilliant but flawed Conservative politician who died young probably from tertiary syphilis or possibly from a tumor on the brain. At the end of his life he became sadly and obviously incapable of thought or speech. But he continued to perform on the parliamentary stage to the embarrassment of all who heard him. Many walked out. Only Gladstone, magnanimous always, treated him with unfailing courtesy. Lord Randolph in the famous words of Lord Rosebery, a fleeting Liberal Prime Minister, 'was the chief mourner at his own protracted funeral' but, long before this sad deterioration, he was very bitter about the Conservatives. He wrote in 1891:

No power will make me lift hand, or foot, or voice for the Tories, just as no power would make me join the other side . . . I expect I have made great mistakes; but there has been no consideration, no indulgence, no memory or gratitude — nothing but spite, malice and abuse. I am quite tired and dead-sick of it all, and will not continue political life any longer.

At about this time he copied out for himself Dryden's lines:

Not Heaven itself over the past hath power;
But what has been has been, and I have had my hour.

Lord Randolph was Chancellor of the Exchequer for a few months in 1886 resigning before he even produced a budget. Many people believed that he was the morning star of the Tory party, its future leader and Prime Minister. But the actual Prime Minister, Robert Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, took a different view. He regarded Lord Randolph as an insufferable colleague. When he offered his resignation on an issue of not great importance with the object of asserting his personal indispensability, Lord Salisbury at once accepted it. Well-wishers tried to reconcile him. Salisbury replied: "Have you ever heard of a man having a carbuncle on his neck wanting it to return?"

Lord Randolph's treatment by the Conservative hierarchy always rankled with Winston. I remember a conversation I had with Lord Salisbury's grandson, the 5th Marquess, who held high office in various Coalition or Conservative governments in the 1940s and 1950. He told me that he was once dining with Churchill in September 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain. Churchill, as he sometimes did, sank into a silent and sombre reverie. Then he suddenly turned to Lord Salisbury and said a propos of nothing: ' "I always consider that your grandfather treated my father disgracefully." ' Lord Salisbury was taken aback. He murmured some emollient comment. The conversation trickled into the sand and the dinner party reverted to the rather more important question of bombers and fighters, and Hitler and Goering.

Winston Churchill was deeply devoted to his father, although he was treated by him in a manner that can only be described as heartless, even cruel. There is a terrible letter from Lord Randolph to his son when the eighteen-year-old boy had been accepted in 1893 for the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and had enthusiastically told his father of his admittedly very marginal — success. 'Always behind-hand . . . social wastrel . . . degenerate into a shabby, unhappy and futile existence.' It can only be excused because physical and mental deterioration was already clouding Lord Randolph's mind.

The paternal rejection was deeply felt, but Winston did not reject his father. Far from it. Much of his life was motivated by the challenge to make the mark in public life that a hero-worshipped father had never achieved. He found himself at the age of twenty head of the family in precarious financial circumstances. He meant to forge a career, but he felt no great love for the Conservative party. Its stuffy conformism had destroyed his father — or so he believed. He would not at once abandon the Churchill family tradition. He would begin as a Conservative, but the allegiance lay lightly on him from the start. In 1900 under the Spy cartoon of him in Vanity Fair these words appear; 'He is ambitious; he means to get on, and he loves his country. But he can hardly be regarded as the slave of any Party.'

He had made enough money by 1900 through lecturing and journalism to risk the career — in those days totally unpaid — of a Member of Parliament. In October he was duly elected as Conservative Member for Oldham in Lancashire, though by a very narrow margin. He thus commenced on a long love/hate relationship with the Conservative Party. It was reciprocal. Plenty of Conservatives felt as much doubt about him as he did about them. The general election of 1900 was a conclusive Conservative victory, based largely on patriotic emotions generated by the South African War. One could perhaps compare the part played by the Falklands War in the election of 1983. A big majority gave scope for backbenchers to go ahead on their own, make their names by making trouble, and generally behave in an undisciplined manner – easier in those days when party pressure was far weaker than it has become since.

From the start of this parliamentary career Winston Churchill made it clear that he was not a party conformist. His disenchantment with his own nominal party certainly increased when in the summer of 1902 he began the task of writing his father's biography. Reading many of the documents for the first time he must have become more aware than ever before of the way in which Lord Randolph perceived his treatment at the hands of Lord Salisbury. In that year Salisbury himself had, after a long and electorally very successful seventeen-year period as leader, at last bowed out. But the Cecil ascendancy remained. The new Prime Minister was Salisbury's nephew, his sister's eldest son, Arthur Balfour. Ostensibly he had been a friend of Lord Randolph; he was a member of the famous 'Fourth Party' which stirred up such trouble on the Tory backbenches in the early 1880s. In reality he kept his uncle closely aware of what Lord Randolph was up to. Winston would not have seen their correspondence but he must have gained an impression from other sources of how matters stood. It cannot have endeared Balfour to him. One remembers his famous description in Great Contemporaries. The pen portrait is in general favourable, even flattering, but after describing Balfour's great charm and courtesy he wrote:

But underneath all this was a cool ruthlessness where public affairs were concerned. He rarely allowed political antagonism to be a barrier in private life; neither did he, any more than Asquith, let personal friendship, however sealed and cemented, hamper his solutions to the problems of State. Had his life been cast amid the labyrinthine intrigues of the Italian Renaissance, he would not have required to study the works of Machiavelli.

Almost from the beginning of his parliamentary career Churchill was far closer to the right wing of the Liberal Party than to the orthodox Conservatives. He corresponded much with Rosebery, Grey and Asquith. His little coterie of whom the principal member was Lord Hugh Cecil, a cousin of Balfour but by no means an admirer, were known as the 'Hughligans' and delighted embarrassing the Government. Churchill wrote to Rosebery of his dream of a 'Government of the Middle — the party which shall be free at once from the sordid selfishness and callousness of Toryism on the one hand and the blind appetites of the Radical masses on the other'. This language in October 1902, well under two years after his entry into the House as a Conservative, is symptomatic, symbolic and startling. But he needed an honorable excuse to change sides.

It came in the spring of 1903 when Joseph Chamberlain, the second most powerful figure in the government, split the party on the question of protective tariffs. One section supported him with enthusiasm; another, deeply attached to traditional Free Trade, remained firmly hostile, Churchill being one of them; Balfour and yet another section sought a compromise. To him Churchill wrote on 25 May 1903:

I am utterly opposed to anything that will alter the Free Trade character of this country . . . once this policy [of tariffs] is begun it must lead to the establishment of a complete Protective system, involving commercial disaster and the Americanization of English parties.

Churchill, half American himself, was very far from being anti-American. But he was aware of the log-rolling, the intrigue, the corruption generated by the American tariff system of that time. In the House of Commons three days later he said:

The old Conservative Party with its religious convictions and constitutional principles will disappear, and a new party will arise rich materialist and secular whose opinion will turn on tariffs and who will cause the lobbies to be crowded with the touts of protected industries.

He now had an issue and a cause. He could break with his and his father's party on a matter of principle. He soon began to distance himself from his old allegiances. In a letter dated 24 October 1903 to Lord Hugh Cecil, which he drafted but did not send, he wrote: 'I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory party, their men, their words, their methods', In March 1904 Balfour, the whole of the Conservative Front bench and the great majority of backbenchers walked out of the House when Churchill rose to speak. In the general election of 1906, he was returned as one of the Liberal members for north-west Manchester. The election was an overwhelming victory for the Liberals throughout the country. Churchill had certainly chosen a good moment to change sides as many people were quick to point out. He was promptly given office as Undersecretary to the Colonies in the new Liberal government.

To cross the floor of the House was by no means an easy thing to do in British politics, even as early as 1904. Party divisions had hardened compared with the fluidity of mid or even late Victorian politics. Churchill was sure of a rough ride from his former allies, and he made it all the rougher by his own pugnacity and insensitivity. There can be no doubt that among Conservatives he became, along with Lloyd George, the most bitterly hated figure in the government party. Indeed, he was even more hated. Lloyd George had never been anything but a radical Liberal, and he stemmed from a background of Welsh Non-Conformity in which radicalism was natural, predictable and expected. Churchill on the other hand with his aristocratic and Tory party connections appeared as a 'traitor to his class'.

He sealed his reputation by an extraordinary speech in the House on 21 March 1906. A group of backbench Liberals had put down a motion of censure for illegal practices on Lord Milner who had been High Commissioner i.e. Governor of South Africa from 1897 to 1905 — the period of the Boer War, its beginning and its aftermath. He had become a cult figure of the Conservative imperialists, a totem and hero in one, who inspired admiration amounting almost to worship among his followers, and corresponding detestation among his opponents. The government largely at Churchill's instigation put down an amendment deprecating the personal censure while also condemning the illegal practices. Churchill was therefore in a sense trying to shield Milner, but the way he chose to do it was hardly tactful. His line in effect was that Milner had now become a figure of such unimportance that he was simply not worth censuring:

Having exercised great authority, he now exercises none. Having held great employment, he now has no employment. Having disposed of events which have shaped the course of history he is now unable to deflect in the smallest degree the policy of the day . . . [He] sees the ideals, the principles, the policies for which he has toiled utterly discredited by the people of Great Britain and [he] knows that many of the arrangements in which he has consumed all the energies of his life are about to be reversed or dissolved. Lord Milner has ceased to be a factor in public events.

These observations and the tone in which they were uttered by a young man of thirty-one, notorious for his bumptiousness and widely regarded as a turncoat, caused enormous resentment from the King himself downwards. In some quarters it was never forgiven. The hatred Churchill inspired was only extinguished by the extinction of the haters themselves. He was lucky to live so long. He never seems to have understood the offense he had given.


Churchill's career as a Liberal junior minister and then in the Cabinet, — Board of Trade, Home Secretary, First Lord of the Admiralty — continued in a blaze of controversy. It was of course a period of great political uproar — the crises first over Lloyd George's famous Budget of 1909, then over the powers of the House of Lords, then over Irish Home Rule and Ulster. In every one of these he was at the forefront, pugnacious and articulate, a master of rhetoric, coiner of unforgettable witticisms and wounding metaphors, a perpetual seeker of the lime light. In the course of these years he was responsible for notable achievements which are familiar in the history books, but he stirred up bitter resentments and intense animosities. Perhaps the episode which caused the strongest feeling was the part he was believed to have played in the Ulster crisis of 1914. He was supposed to have engaged in a plot to provoke the Ulster Volunteers into armed resistance which would give the government an excuse to move in troops, smash them and impose Home Rule by force for all Ireland. Although there was a good deal of plausible circumstantial evidence for the charge, it seems in fact to have been unjustified. But belief in its truth fuelled the flames of anti-Churchill sentiment.

Then came the First World War. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty and was deeply involved in one of the great fiascos of the war — the Dardanelles expedition of 1915. Reams have been written about this. The blame lies at least as much with Asquith, the Prime Minister and Lord Kitchener, Secretary of War. But Churchill showed an almost quixotic readiness to accept responsibility for a campaign, about which he had expressed many misgivings and which had by no means been conducted as he had planned. It was an honourable attitude but one that did him much unnecessary harm.

The full extent of British defeat did not become apparent till October, but by early May it was clear that things were going badly wrong. At this juncture Admiral Fisher, the eccentric First Sea Lord, suddenly resigned. He had always suppressed doubts about the expedition and when Churchill tampered with some of his instructions he exploded. The ensuing crisis rocked the government. To prevent a breach of the uneasy pact which had kept the Conservatives from overt opposition Asquith had to form a coalition government. Bonar Law, the Conservative leader, had never liked or trusted Churchill. He insisted as an absolute condition upon his removal from the Admirality. Churchill departed, under strong protest, took a minor office, resigning when the decision was made in November to withdraw from the Dardanelles and departing to command a regiment on the Western Front. He was soon back in politics, but his conduct from the back benches seemed to many people irresponsible and full of sour grapes. He was now not even trusted by the Liberals. He had no personal following at all.

At the end of 1916 a second Cabinet crisis occurred. Asquith was overthrown and Lloyd George replaced him as head of a new coalition even more dependent on Conservative support than its predecessor. To Churchill’s immense chagrin Lloyd George did not take the risk of inviting him to join. Four prominent Conservatives made their entry conditional on his exclusion. But in July 1917 he decided that Churchill ‘out’ was a greater threat than Churchill ‘in’. Without consulting the Conservative leader he appointed him as Minister of Munitions.

Bonar law complained bitterly against this fait accompli. The National Unionist (ie Conservative) Council carried amidst cheers a motion that it was ‘an insult to the Navy and the Army’. A hundred Conservative MPs signed a resolution condemning him as ‘a national danger’. The Morning Post said “We confidently anticipate that he will continue to make colossal blunders at the expense of the nation’. The Sunday Times considered his return ‘a grave danger to the Administration and the Empire as a whole’. Lloyd George reckoned rightly on wartime governmental and party unity to ride out the storm. No one resigned though many came near to it. The waters subsided and Churchill, much disliked, suspected and even hated, managed to survive.

Let us move on a few years. Churchill’s appointment in 1917 was a significant augury for the future. The Government he had joined was largely dependent on Conservative support. He had been appointed in spite of Conservative hostility, but he was even less in favor with the Asquithian element in the Liberal Party which now constituted the official opposition to Lloyd George’s government. The possibility of that ‘Centre Party’ to which he has looked forward in his youth beckoned hopefully. The 1918 election resulted in a crushing defeat for the Asquithians. Lloyd George's Liberals were now far out-numbered by his Conservative supporters. But that support was always conditional upon success. Churchill's position, as the most vigorous and truculent of the Liberal ministers in a largely Conservative Cabinet, was precarious. If things went wrong, if the Conservatives withdrew, he would be in trouble.

In 1922 the rank and file of the Conservative Party repudiated Lloyd George and overthrew his government. The ensuring election saw Churchill lose his seat at Dundee and gave the Conservatives under Bonar Law a clear majority. On 30 May 1923 Churchill, asked by a former colleague where he stood politically, replied 'I am what I have always been — a Tory Democrat. Force of circumstances has compelled me to serve with another party, but my views have never changed, and I should be glad to give effect to them by rejoining the Conservatives.' On 14 August he had a long conversation with Baldwin, the new Prime Minister, with a view to joining the party, but no decision was reached. Then in October Baldwin unexpectedly raised the whole question of protective tariffs which he said were the only cure for unemployment. He called a general election. Churchill now swung back to his old allegiance. He stood as a Liberal for West Leicester mounting a ferocious attack on the government, but he lost yet again, this time to a Labour candidate.

The general election was indecisive. The Conservatives were the biggest single party but Labour who came second and the Liberals who came third could in combination outvote them. The Liberals decided to defeat Baldwin. MacDonald, the Labour leader, accordingly took office with Liberal support. For Churchill this was the turning point. Socialism was anathema to him. No one had more vehemently supported the White Russians against the Bolsheviks in 1919-20. No one had been more distressed when Lloyd George withdrew British support and left the White Russians to their fate. To compare Bolshevism with the British Labour Party may seem absurd. For Churchill, however — and he was not alone — the socialism preached by Ramsay MacDonald was merely a watered-down version of Communism. And for communism as practiced in Soviet Russia he had unlimited hatred and contempt. To him it was the embodiment of ruthless terrorism, total tyranny and destruction of all the values of Western civilization. It would produce grinding poverty, extinguish liberty of thought, belief, speech or the press, and do all in its power to spread its evil doctrines over the rest of the world. And who can say he was wrong? As for Labour MacDonald was obviously not a Lenin or a Stalin or a Trotsky, but many of his followers saw Russia through rose-colored spectacles, used sympathetic language, and in some cases were clearly fellow-travellers. To give such a party the chance to govern Britain even in a minority and for a short time seemed to Churchill the height of irresponsibility. In a long letter to The Times published on 18 January 1924 he proclaimed his position and finally broke with the Liberal Party.

In March he tried to get the Conservative nomination for the Abbey Division of Westminster, one of the safest seats in the country. Unfortunately, the nephew of the man whose death seats in the country election was a heavy contributor to party funds. He insisted on standing and not surprisingly obtained the official blessing of the local organization. Churchill fought as an Independent Anti-Socialist. Never has an election received greater publicity, but Churchill lost by the narrowest of margins — only forty-three votes. It was a brief set-back. MacDonald's government did not last long. There was another general election in October 1924. Churchill was adopted as the official Tory candidate for Epping and won easily. He retained the seat for the rest of his political life. Thus, after twenty years he returned to his original party. And he was rewarded to the surprise of most people, including himself, by the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer which his father had held thirty-eight years earlier. His account is worth quoting. When Baldwin offered him the post he said 'What about Robert Horne?' who had been Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1921-22. Baldwin said 'No I offered him that post a year ago when I needed him, and he refused. He will not have it now.' There was a pause. Then Baldwin said 'Perhaps you will now tell me your answer to my question. Will you go to the Treasury?' Churchill writes 'I should have liked to have answered "Will the bloody duck swim?" But as it was a formal and important occasion, I replied "This fulfils my ambition. I still have my father's robe as Chancellor. I shall be proud to serve you in this splendid office."


Churchill's tenure of the Chancellorship was not in itself particularly controversial. He followed the orthodox economic policies of the day. Many of them now seem to have been erroneous, especially the return to the Gold Standard. But, if Churchill erred, he erred in company with almost all the economists, bankers, businessmen and politicians of the day. Keynes was one of the few exceptions among the economists. What did bring Churchill into hot dispute was his role in the General Strike of 1926 when he planned, edited and managed an official newspaper called the British Gazette which presented the government case against the unions in picturesque and lurid language. A paper whose circulation rose from 230,000 to 2,200,000 between 5 and 12 May can hardly be regarded as unsuccessful, even in the peculiar circumstances of the day. But its success did Churchill no good in the longer run. No doubt he disarmed to some extent the diehards of the extreme right who had been the element most hostile to him in the Conservative Party, but he infuriated the parties of the left and his 'image' as an enemy of organized labour and an oppressor of the working-class long continued, though a travesty of the truth. However, he had an effective answer to those impartial who accused him of failure to be 'impartial' — 'I decline utter between the fire brigade and the fire.’

In 1919 the Conservatives were defeated. The Labour Party did not have an overall majority, but as in 1924 MacDonald took office at the head of a minority government with Liberal support. Churchill found himself on the Opposition Front Bench for the first time ever. He soon began to distance himself from his former cabinet colleagues. Two issues were involved. One was the question of India, the other that of tariff reform which suddenly re-entered the political scene. Of these India was the more important. The Viceroy, Lord Irwin, better known as Lord Halifax,later Foreign Secretary and then wartime Ambassador in Washington, favoured a major step towards Indian independence. He had been appointed by Baldwin but was continued under MacDonald. Baldwin agreed with this change of policy and hoped for a Conservative/Labour consensus. Churchill was bitterly opposed. His attitude to India was conditioned by his experiences as a young cavalry officer in the 4th Hussars. With the middle, intellectual and professional classes who in Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay were the driving force for independence he had no sympathy or understanding whatever.

Churchill was in America when Baldwin persuaded the Conservative 'Business Committee' — it would now be called the Shadow Cabinet — to support Lord Irwin. On his return to London Churchill quickly and publicly registered dissent in a strong article in the Daily Mail on 16 November 1929. He could never understand that what the subjects of imperial rule sought was not good government but self-government, and that no amount of argument that the British Raj was just, honest and efficient — which it was — would have any effect at all on those who wanted to govern themselves whether badly or well. Churchill persistently opposed the idea of even modest steps towards what was called 'dominion status' for India. Early in 1931 Ghandi was released from detention and the decision was backed by Baldwin. Churchill promptly resigned from the Business Committee.

He was also on a collision path with Baldwin over the other question — tariffs. Baldwin in office had been content to accept free trade. Out of office he was at once faced with strong Conservative pressure to declare himself in favor of what was called 'Empire Free Trade' imperial tariffs under a different name — backed by the newspaper magnates, Lords Beaverbrook and Rother mere. Baldwin was not averse to some steps in that direction. He was not willing to go the whole way but he made concessions which were a further reason for Churchill widening the gap with his leader.

Churchill now seemed more and more a figure of the extreme right. He pursued his battle over India to the bitter end. When the economic crisis of 1931 occurred, he was not invited to join the MacDonald/Baldwin coalition. He continued to use every parliamentary device to block the India Bill. He had little support among Conservative MPs but considerable backing in the party organization, though never a majority. He made himself very unpopular in April 1934 by accusing Lord Derby, a respected pillar of the party, and Sir Samuel Hoare, Secretary of State for India, of a breach of parliamentary privilege by influencing evidence to be given to a Joint Select Committee on India. The charge was quite unjustified and was rejected by the Committee of Privileges two months later.

The tariff issue died away. Churchill's next criticism of his party was concerned with rearmament and foreign policy. There is much mythology about this and Churchill's memoirs have to be read in the light of a brilliant study by last year's Crosby Kemper lecturer, Mr. Robert Rhodes James, Churchill, a Study in Failure (1970). Churchill was by no means consistent in his opinions; he spoke well of Mussolini; he was ambivalent at first about Hitler; he was pro-Franco till late in the day; he admired Japan. But he was from the early 1930s onwards a consistent advocate of British rearmament against the mounting German threat, and a constant critic of the British Government's failure, as he saw it, to cope with the danger.

At first, he was given a reasonable degree of access to official information, despite his vigorous attacks on government policy. He was careful in timing these. From October 1935 till March 1936 he held his fire hoping to return to office. No offer came, and he was greatly disappointed. He now began to strike a harsher note of criticism and, although some of his information was wrong and some of his advice doubtful, there can be no doubt that he was far nearer to the truth and reality than were the successive governments of MacDonald, Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain. This of course did not make him popular. Indeed, one is struck throughout this period right up to the outbreak of war by what a lonely figure he had become. He still had no following. His supporters over India were also for the most part supporters of the Conservative defense and foreign policies which he was attacking. His right-wing conservatism divided him from Conservative social reformers, to be given to a Joint Select Committee on India. The charge was quite unjustified and was rejected by the Committee of Privileges two months and of course made any rapprochement with the Liberals, let alone Labour, out of the question. He had nowhere to go. He was the prisoner of the Conservative Party, however much he disliked its general tone and style.

Nevertheless, he was beginning to make some headway over rearmament and on 12 November 1936 he had an exchange with Baldwin from which he came out triumphant and Baldwin very badly. Then there occurred an unexpected reversal. The crisis over King Edward Vlll's decision to marry Mrs. Simpson suddenly broke into the open after months of gossip and rumor. The leaders of all the political parties and the Dominion prime ministers were convinced that the marriage was incompatible with retaining the Crown. Churchill romantic, loyal, protective, quixotic, convinced himself that the King was being unduly hurried into an irrevocable decision. His wife and friends begged him to keep quiet, but he insisted on issuing a public statement. When he tried to make a speech in the House on the same lines, he was for the only time in his life literally shouted down. His popularity sank to zero.

Churchill was quiet during the first half of 1937 but if he had hopes of office under the new Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain who succeeded Baldwin in May, he was to be disappointed. 'If I take him into the Cabinet, he will dominate it, he won't give others a chance of even talking.' The crunch came with Eden's resignation in February 1938 and the Munich crisis in September/October. After Eden's departure there was at last a group of Conservative MPs prepared to cooperate against 'Appeasement,’ but significantly they kept aloof from Churchill. They welcomed his independent support, not his membership nor that of his few friends. The Munich settlement inspired one of Churchill's greatest but most resented speeches. One has to remember the enormous sense of relief that war had been averted and of admiration for Chamberlain's diplomacy — 'peace in our time'. From the outset he was uncompromising.

I will begin by saying the most unpopular and unwelcome thing. I will begin by saying what everybody would like to ignore or forget but which must nevertheless be stated, namely, that we have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat, and that France has suffered even more than we have.

Lady Astor shouted 'Nonsense' — she often did — and the angry hubbub on the Conservative front benches was so loud that Churchill had to pause for a time before he could continue his marvelously worded but highly provocative indictment of a policy overwhelmingly supported in parliament and press. Here is an extract:

All is over. Silent, mournful, abandoned, broken, Czechoslovakia recedes into the darkness . . . This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless, by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time.

A serious effort was made to force him to resign as a Conservative MP, and it was repeated early in 1939, but he rode out the storm each time, and was supported by a majority of the Epping constituency party.

Then the scene abruptly changed. The German occupation of Prague killed appeasement stone dead. Events, culminating with the German Soviet Pact moved relentlessly to war. One of the major criticisms of Churchill viz that he appeared positively to enjoy waging war seemed now an asset. If there has to be a war there is something to be said for putting it in charge of people who will conduct it with enthusiasm. Churchill became once again First Lord of the Admiralty. A series of disasters caused a catastrophic fall in Chamberlain's majority and a cry in May 1940, as in May 1915, for a coalition government. Labour was not prepared to serve under Chamberlain. Of the only serious contenders they would have preferred Lord Halifax and so probably did most Conservatives. Chamberlain and the King also favoured Halifax. But he was not willing to accept and thus in a curiously negative way Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940.

His relations with the party were by no means cordial at first. The leadership was retained by Neville Chamberlain though he offered to resign it. He was the man whom Conservative members cheered on his first entry into the House after his resignation. The cheers for Churchill were almost all from the Labour and Liberal benches. In the House of Lords the announcement of Churchill’s appointment was received in dead silence. The old mistrust, suspicion and hostility were not to disappear at all easily. In October ill health forced Chamberlain to retire. Churchill's prestige had risen greatly thanks to his leadership and Britain’s survival during the Battle of Britain. He was pressed by many people to assume the leadership. His wife, however, implored him not to. She had always been a Liberal and felt at heart deep antipathy to Conservatives, which she could never eradicate. She believed that the leadership would detract from his status as a great national figure who was above mere party considerations. Churchill did not agree. He remembered the difficulties of Lloyd George — a prime minister without a party after the First World War. He still by no means trusted the Conservatives and he knew that there were those who by no means trusted him. It was safer to be on top. He told the adoption meeting that he accepted 'solemnly but also buoyantly'.

Henceforth Churchill was in total control. There were grumbles when things went badly in the war, grumbles after the war when he lost the general election and seemed a rather casual leader of the opposition, grumbles again when after 1953 he seemed to cling on too long to office. But they were minor grumbles. There was no question of ousting the most famous Englishman of his day equal in public esteem to Chatham and Wellington rolled into one. He could choose his own time to depart, and he did. But there was a lingering doubt about him. Perhaps I can end by quoting what I wrote in my history of the Conservative party about his final resignation in April 1955:

And so, the greatest statesman to have led the party bowed out. He had been leader for nearly fifteen years, but the relationship was often uneasy, especially after the war. He was a man of genius, energy, vision, a master of the spoken and written word. He had saved England in 1940. But was he really a Conservative and if so in what sense? Perhaps the answer is that he was an anachronism. It was as if time had been warped in some strange way, and an eighteenth-century Whig was leading a twentieth-century Tory party.

Robert Blake

F.B.A., J.P.

Lord Blake (Robert Norman William Blake) of Braydeston, Norfolk was educated at King Edward VI School in Norwich and Magdalen College, Oxford, where he received First Class Final Honors in the School of Modern Greats in 1938. During World War II, he served in the Royal Artillery in North Africa, and he was a prisoner of war in Italy from 1942 until 1944, when he escaped.

He became a Lecturer in Politics at Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1946, and his academic career has continued since that date. He presently is Provost of the Queen's College, Oxford, a position he has held since 1968, and Pro-Vice Chancellor, Oxford University (since 1971). In 1971, he also became a Life Peer.

Lord Blake has served as chairman of the Royal Commission on Historical Manuscripts, trustee of the British Museum, chairman of the Hansard Society Commission on Electoral Reform, chairman of The Rhodes Trust, member of the Hebdomadal Council, and member of the Oxford City Council. In 1967-68 he was Ford's Lecturer in English History at Christ Church College.

His publications include: The Private Papers of Douglas Haig (1952); The Unknown Prime Minister (Life of Andrew Bonar Law) (1955); Disraeli (1966); The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (1970) and the second edition The Conservative Party from Peel to Thatcher (1985); The Office of Prime Minister (1975); A History of Rhodesia (1977); Disraeli's Grand Tour (1982); and The Decline of Power 1915-1964 (1985). He has been the editor of the Dictionary of National Biography since 1980.

Lord and Lady Blake are the parents of three daughters.


Biography appears as published in 1987.

“Leave the past to history especially as I propose to write that history myself.”

Winston S. Churchill