The Ins and Outs of Power 1919-1929

Churchill served simultaneously as the post-war Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air from January 1919 until he became Colonial Secretary in February 1921. The British Empire reached its zenith when the Great War brought more territory under its control. The burden of enforcing its empire, however, further drained Britain's war-depleted resources.

When support for the Liberal Party coalition collapsed, Churchill lost his seat in the General Election of 1922. He was out of Parliament in 1922 and 1923, losing By-elections each year. He finally regained a seat in the General Election of 1924. Winston negotiated a return to the Conservative Party, becoming Chancellor of the Exchequer, a position once held by his father.

The defeat of the Conservatives in 1929 put Churchill out of power again, and the stock market crash left him out of money. Winston began a period of furious writing to reestablish his political and economic fortunes.

Irish Stew

Agitation for Irish independence had been a long-standing element of British politics. The conflict was not only between the British and the Irish. The Irish people themselves were divided between those who wanted an Irish Republic - the Nationalists - and those who wished to remain united with Britain - the Unionists.

The Nationalist-Unionist split was further intensified by religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant, and political differences between the North - with a Unionist majority - and the South - with a Nationalist majority. Ireland seemed constantly to be a cauldron of warring factions on the verge of civil war.

The Great War brought a period of relative domestic peace as both Nationalists and Unionists pledged to support the Allies. As the Ulster Division suffered over 5,500 casualties on the first day of the Battle of the Somme, back in Ireland, Nationalist rebels tried to provoke an insurrection on Easter Monday 1916. The rebellion, lacking popular support, was quickly put down, but it was a sign of things to come.

In the General Election of 1918, Sinn Fein (Gaelic for "we ourselves" or "ourselves alone") supplanted the Nationalists as the dominant Irish party. Refusing to take their seats in Westminster, they proclaimed themselves the Irish government in Dublin. When the British intervened, attacks by Irish volunteer militia precipitated a two-year War of Independence.

Winston's Introduction to Irish Politics

Churchill lived in Ireland from 1876 to 1879 (age 2-5) where his father served as secretary to his grandfather, then the Viceroy of Ireland. He began his autobiography, "My Early Life," with this:

"My earliest memories are Ireland. I can recall scenes and events in Ireland quite well, and sometimes dimly even, people. ...My nurse, Mrs. Everest, was nervous about the Fenians [the Irish Republican Brotherhood.] I gathered these were wicked people and there was no end to what they would do if they had their way. On one occasion when I was out riding on my donkey, we thought we saw a long dark procession of Fenians approaching. I am sure now it must have been the Rifle Brigade out for a route march. But we were all very much alarmed, particularly the donkey, who expressed his anxiety by kicking. I was thrown off and had concussion of the brain. This was my first introduction to Irish politics!"

Colonial Complexities

"The sun never sets on the British Empire." –Anonymous popular saying

After the Great War, the British Empire peaked with the addition of states and nations taken from the vanquished Empires. Approximately one quarter of the world's land and population fell within its influence, including holdings in Asia, Latin America, the Middle East, Africa, and Australia.

First as Secretary of State for War and Air, then as Colonial Secretary, Churchill was in the center of complex and dangerous circumstances.

Churchill came to his ministerial offices well prepared. Winston had traveled widely, read extensively, studied government thoroughly, and had substantial ministerial experience. He would need all of it.

Two hot spots would tax his skill and add to his reputation:

And Winston's options were limited by the resources of a country exhausted by war, drained of cash, saddled with loans, and reluctant to support large-scale foreign operations.

Quick Sands

At the beginning of the Great War, the areas now known as Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Israel, and most of Saudi Arabia were part of the Ottoman Empire ruled from Turkey. When the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers in the war, the whole Middle East was suddenly opened as a theater of operation.

The British supported tribal revolts among the Arabs against their Ottoman rulers to hamper Otooman action in Europe. T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) was the charismatic agent and romantic hero of the desert revolt. Fueled by British promises during the war, Arabs expected immediate independence at war's end.

What they got was a French protectorate for Syria and a British protectorate for the rest under a League of Nations mandate. By 1920, Arabs in Mesopotamia, as Iraq was then called, revolted against the British by assassinating local officials.

The difficult and complex process of breaking up the Ottoman Empire and determining new borders was just getting started. Areas under mandate contained multiple tribal and ethnic groups and multiple religions.

The victorious powers of Europe tried to deal with the Middle East by organizing European-style nation-states and installing strong local tribal families as rulers.

In 1917 the Balfour Declaration pledged Britain to support "the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people," setting in motion another enduring dynamic of Middle Easter politics.

"In the vast deserts of Arabia... there dwell...powerful nomadic tribes, at the head of whom the remarkable chief Bin Saud maintains himself. ...A large number of Bin Saud's followers belong to the Wahabi sect, a form of Mohammedanism which bears, roughly speaking, the same relation to orthodox Islam as the most militant form of Calvinism would have borne to Rome in the fiercest times of the religious wars. ...They hold it was an article of duty, as well as of faith, to kill all who do not share their opinions. ...the Wahabis are a distinct factor which must be taken into account, and they have been, and still are, very dangerous to the hold cities of Mecca and Medina..."

Different Office, Same Troubles

In the space of only a few years, Churchill had to deal with Ireland and the Middle East from two different Cabinet posts. As Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air (January 1919-January 1921), he was responsible for military matters. As the Colonial Secretary (February 1921-October 1922), he was responsible for political affairs.

Churchill welcome the transfer from the War to the Colonial Office because he felt there were no military solutions to either Ireland or Iraq.


Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air

"Let murder stop, let constitutional dominion begin, let the Irish people carry the debate from the squalid conditions in which it is now being pushed forward by the Irish murder gang."

Churchill came to the War Office in the middle of the Irish War of Independence. By 1920 the overt rebellion, and the breakaway faction had been suppressed. But the militias reformed the Irish Republican Army and began a guerilla campaign that would last for decades.

The violence let Britain to establish a counter-insurgency force consisting of demobilized British soldiers called the "Black and Tans"- referring to the mixing of civilian and military uniform. These troops came under Churchill's responsibility, as did his creation of the Ulster Special Constabulary for Northern Ireland. Churchill's oversight of attempts to suppress Irish violence - including reprisal killings for the deaths of British forces - made him a target for assassination by Sinn Fein.

As violence and reprisals on both sides escalated, Churchill called for an end to the violence with a truce and negotiations. His call fell on deaf ears. He was reduced to supplying arms and men for a policy of suppression for which he could see no end in sight.

Secretary of State for the Colonies

"Tell Winston we could never have done anything without him." –Michael Collins, Chief Irish Treaty Negotiator

The Irish situation had reached a critical junction in 1921 when Churchill entered the Colonial Office.

In 1920 the British Parliament had passed the Government of Ireland Act partitioning the country into Northern Ireland (with Parliament in Belfast) and Southern Ireland (with Parliament in Dublin). It satisfied neither side. The North got more independence than its majority wanted and the South got less independence than its majority demanded. Sinn Fein continued to employ violence as a means to achieve a united Ireland.

In December 1921, Churchill took charge of negotiations that led to a treaty whereby the South became independent and the North retained its connection with Britain. Winston was so effective and articulate on the issue in Parliament that he was asked to negotiate the subsequent legislation creating the Irish Free State which passed in February 1922.

Churchill's accomplishment was astonishing given the depth of passion surrounding the issue on all sides. His great diplomatic achievement received wide praise; however, his enemies never forgave him losing Ireland. This partition of Ireland would be one more compromise that utterly failed to satisfy its opponents, who preferred violence to accommodation. Within six months, Michael Collins, Churchill's Irish partner in the negotiations, was assassinated and the Irish struggle continued.

Middle East

Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air

Mesopotamia (now Iraq), plus Palestine and Trans-Jordan became British mandates at war's end. Churchill was responsible for the British Troops who occupied these newly created states carved out of the old Ottoman Empire and comprising multiple and conflicting tribal areas. It was not an easy assignment.

The mandates added substantial territory to the British Empire. However, the lands would cost far more to administer than would ever be returned in revenue. For example, running Iraq in 1921 cost more than the entire British health budget - £23 million. Churchill commented that the region was "unduly stocked with peppery, pugnacious, proud politicians and theologians, who happened at the same time to be extremely hard up."

While Churchill supported the use of aircraft against rebels, he quickly lost faith in military solutions. His goal; to find a way to maintain British influence while limiting the expense to the British government.

Secretary of State for the Colonies

"...our policy in Mesopotamia is to...extricate ourselves from our burdens while at the same time honorably discharging our obligations and building up a strong and effective Arab Government which will always be the friend of Britain..."

Churchill's goal as Colonial Secretary was to establish friendly governments without involving Britain in long-term and costly commitments.

For example, in May 1921, he obtained consent of the Cabinet to place Royal Air Force (RAF) squadrons in Mesopotamia to control the area more cheaply than ground forces. He also recommended the use of tear gas against "uncivilized tribes" in Mesopotamia which would "cause great inconvenience...and yet would leave no serious permanent affect..."

At the Cairo Conference of 1921, with the advice of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), Churchill set the boundaries and established regimes of what are now Jordan and Iraq. Thus Winston set the stage for modern Iraqi and Jordanian politics.

He also worked for both a Jewish national Home in Palestine and the protection of the rights of Palestinians as called for in the Balfour Declaration. But, finding common ground between both sides exceeded even Winston's diplomatic skill.

Without a Party

"Do not however let the Tories get you too cheap..." –Clementine Churchill

After three losses left him out of Parliament for two years, Winston looked to rejoin the Conservative Party again.

However, the Conservatives were not pleased with Winston. Some still carried a grudge over his earlier defection. The Irish Treaty was repugnant to many and Winston had not renounced many of his Liberal sympathies.

Without a Seat

"In the twinkling of an eye, I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix."

The Liberal Party - the party Churchill joined after jilting the Conservatives in 1904 - was a spent force by 1922. Dissatisfaction with the consequences of the Great War and its aftermath provoked a political realignment, and the Liberal government lost its majority.

Churchill, recovering from an appendectomy and too weak to walk, campaigned for reelection as a Liberal in 1922- and lost.

Churchill campaigned again as a Liberal in 1923 - and lost.

He campaigned in 1924 as an Independent- and lost.

It was time for a change.

With an Office

"So Winston is on the war path again." –Lady Blanche Hozier (Clementine's Mother)

Churchill's return to the Conservatives was less dramatic than his "crossing the floor" in 1904, but it was a more delicate maneuver.

Churchill argued that there was "no gulf of principle" between the Liberals and the Conservatives - at least not compared with the Labour alternative. He even tried unsuccessfully to pull off a Liberal-Conservative fusion.

Ultimately, good hard bargaining prevailed. Whatever the level of resentment the rank and file party members felt, Churchill was too good a politician and minister to be left out.

Winston was slated to run for a safe Conservative seat and was appointed Chancellor of the Exchequer before he officially joined the Conservative Party.

Donning His Father's Robes

"This fulfills my ambition. I still have my father's robe as Chancellor. I shall be proud to serve you in this splendid Office."

Churchill's appointment in 1924 to Chancellor of the Exchequer was a personal and political triumph. He now held the second-most powerful position in the country - just as his father once had.

Responsibility for the national budget presented many difficult issues, and Churchill's choices were not always well received by government or the public. Yet, Winston proved to be a tireless, creative and effective minister.

The paralyzing nine-day General Strike of 1926 called on Churchill's skills as a negotiator and conciliator to help resolve the protest. Ever the journalist, he edited and produced a government newspaper during the strike.

In his five years a Exchequer, Winston displayed great independence from Party stance. Ironically, the one time he joined the crowd- returning British currency to the Gold Standard after its suspension during the Great War - proved his major stumble. Coming just before the New York Stock Market crash, this policy worsened the impending Depression's effects on Britain.

Out of Power; Not Out of Steam

"I have had a delightful month building a cottage & dictating a book: 200 bricks & 2,000 words per day."

Because the Conservative Party lost its majority in 1929, Winston Churchill had no Ministerial position for the next ten years. Although he retained his seat in Parliament, many thought Winston's career as a political powerhouse was over.

Winston used these "Wilderness Years" to expand his home at Chartwell, and embark on writing projects that fueled his sense of personal destiny and that of the British people.

In 1929 Winston made his first lecture tour of the United States in almost 30 years. He was in New York when the stock market crashed in October - a catastrophe that severely hurt his financial position and wiped out profits from the lecture tour. Once again, Winston was dependent on his writings to earn a living.

While in the United States in 1931 for another lecture tour, he was struck by an automobile and seriously injured. Characteristically, Winston profited from this misadventure by writing about it.

A Thousand Words a Day

"Writing a book is an adventure. To begin with it is a toy, an amusement; then it becomes a mistress, and then a master and then a tyrant."

Churchill's energy and productivity as a writer was astonishing, and his years out of power - 1929 through 1939 - were among his most prolific. He set himself a goal of a thousand words a day.

Winston managed this prodigious output by hiring assistants and stenographers, and by dictating his drafts. He often worked late into the night after full days of activity.

Churchill's first major project was a five-volume history of the Great War, The World Crisis (published: 1923-31). He followed with a four-volume history of his ancestor, Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-38), for whom Blenheim Palace, Winston's birthplace, was built. He wrote most of the four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, but was not able to edit and publish it until after World War II (1956-58).

During this time, Churchill also published his autobiographical My Early Life (1930), compiled four collections of essays, and wrote countless newspaper articles, speeches and lectures.


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

Winston S. Churchill