Whenever a journalist writes a piece on Churchill’s stint as Liberal MP for Dundee – research unearths a skip-full of identikit articles, shallow and derivative – one aspect is mentioned without fail. They begin or end with the loaded statement “The only evidence of Churchill’s presence in Dundee is a single small plaque on a street wall”. (My italics.) A cursory study tells us Churchill cared little for Dundee folk; a wonder city fathers don’t remove the plaque permanently in embarrassment.
The man and the women
Let’s begin with the man. Sir Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill (1874 – 1965) was a British politician, army officer, and writer. He painted a bit but as a hobby. For all the waving of Union Jacks, Churchill was of mixed English and American parentage.
Churchill was born in Oxfordshire to a wealthy, aristocratic family. He was a direct descendant of the Dukes of Marlborough, his family among the highest levels of the British aristocracy, born into the governing elite. His paternal grandfather, John Spencer-Churchill, 7th Duke of Marlborough, had been a Member of Parliament (MP) for ten years, and a member of the Conservative Party who served in the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. His own father, Lord Randolph Churchill, who died of advanced syphilis or a brain tumour, whichever fits your perceptions, was elected Conservative MP for Woodstock in 1873. His mother, Jennie Churchill (née Jerome), was from an American family whose substantial wealth derived from finance. To say Churchill was born into privilege is an understatement. He arrived with a silver spoon sticking out of every orifice. He came into being when the British empire was at its zenith and the elite ruled without mercy.
In appearance he was unprepossessing, or as Scots say, nae oil paintin’. Below average height (5′ 6″), with a large head, small chested, he tended to wear high hats to increase his stature. He was podgy, prematurely bald, with small hands and feet and skinny legs.
His speech defect, a splashy sibilant ‘S’, later to become his trademark together with a fat Havana cigar, did not help him. His over-weaning self-confidence compensated to an extent attracting a succession of sexual liaisons, but women left him as quick as attracted, finding him egocentric and a misogynist. The found it difficult to subordinate themselves to him completely.
Churchill was thirty-four by the time the twenty-two year-old Clementine Hozier accepted his offer of marriage, “he talked entirely of himself”. He had already been rejected on four known occasions by women of good judgement and taste. Clementine was the daughter of Sir Henry Hozier and Lady Blanche Hozier, although that is in doubt because her mother was infamous for her infidelities.
Clementine was not purblind. She kept a wary eye on his gambling, and a close watch on his wandering eye for shapely women with money. She disliked his Tory friends in whom Churchill found convivial political views and told him as much. Disputes were problematic, “he shouts me down!” That aside, they were a good match, they shared a penchant for spending money lavishly they did not have.
No mates Winston
For a member of the Liberal Party recently defected from the Tory Party, Churchill tested fate. He disliked Liberal leader David Lloyd George, continually opposing Lloyd George’s policies as weak or woeful. The feeling was mutual. In fact, Churchill’s Liberal peers neither liked him nor trusted him, and the same prevailed when he crossed the House again to rejoin the Tory party years later. MPs from all sides of the House thought him a serial failure, racist, bombastic, and a bully. It was water off a duck’s back. As he said himself, “any fool can rat but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”.
Like Boris Johnson, on whom contemporary pundits are wont to compare for something better to do, he was an opportunist with a string of non-achievements and disasters in his portfolio acquired in office and as a young army officer. (Facts for a different essay.) Trailing those lead weights behind him, how did he manage to win a seat in Dundee?
To darkest Scotland
On his appointment as President of the Board of Trade, Churchill had to fight a by-election in Manchester North. He lost by 400 votes to the Tories. A day later he received a telegram from Liberals in Dundee inviting him to stand there, a safe Liberal seat, a shoe-in. As is Scotland’s political fate, whatever politics is popular in England, Scotland is sure to defend the opposite policies.
The sitting MP was handed a peerage and his suitcase packed. Churchill’s Dundee opponent was a devout Christian and socialist prohibitionist, Edwin Scrymgeour, not much of a rival at that time. To win, Churchill adopted a hyper-critical style, describing the Tory Party as “filled with old doddering peers, cute financial magnates, clever wire-pullers and big brewers with bulbous noses.” The enemies of progress were Tories “weaklings, sleek, slug, comfortable, self-important individuals.” He could almost have been describing himself.
If he had one talent outside self-serving expediency it was a fine oratory talent. He won with a 7,000 majority, but all was not sweetness and light.
“This city will kill me. Halfway through my kipper this morning an enormous maggot crawled out and flashed his teeth at me. Such are the penalties which great men pay in the service of their country.” Letter to Clementine
Privately, he had already formed a dislike of Dundonians. “It is an awful hindrance to anyone in my position forced to fight for his life and always having to to make his opinions on national politics conform to local exigencies.”
As far as Churchill was concerned, Dundee was a small provincial town of no great importance other than for saving his political skin. Like so many Englishmen who followed him to Scotland, it is difficult not to see him as another ligger and a carpetbagger. Dundonians learned to loathe his expensive lifestyle, his long absences, especially his active social life amid the aristocratic elite.
Scottish hospitality at its best
Churchill was at first well-received in the city. The Liberal Party was popular among the city’s working class communities. Dundee had never been a Tory city, the Liberal Party had values people admired. One policy was the National Insurance Act of 1911, another the establishment of Labour Exchanges – now called ‘Jobcentres’ – a successful idea copied from Germany. Churchill was not known for paying attention to detail. His impetus was to avoid waste. For him, that meant an organised labour market to benefit the state, the interests of the individual to be subordinate to those of the nation.
To the man in the street, a policy of putting men back to work appeared progressive, men out of work were better in. To Churchill, the policy was “a remorselessly unsentimental government attitude to the people’s sacrifices for the future of the race”, a maxim more Tory than liberal. By siding with Liberal policies Dundonians initially misinterpreted Churchill’s allegiances. For almost a decade they held to Churchill’s representation and he retained the seat until 1922.
Not what we ordered
Nevertheless, as was his character, Churchill could alienate as fast as he could impress. He set up his headquarters in the city’s Queen’s Hotel and spent much of his time in the Dundee Advertiser’s Bank Street offices, poring over proofs of his speeches as they were typeset within minutes of his meetings. (The job of writing history to his own image began early in his career.) During his tenure he made himself unpopular by deploying troops during the both the miners’ strike in Tonypandy, Wales, in 1910 and the transport strike a year later that concluded with two people dead and 400 injured. Also, some Dundonians were not slow in blaming Churchill for the Dardanelles failure and the slaughter of so many men at Gallipoli during 1915.
At the beginning he was very popular with the Irish in Dundee but that popularity waned too when he sent troops to Ireland after the war. Churchill’s attitude to every nation England had conquered, and ultimately to his own people, was one of colonial master to lowly citizen.
Churchill was adept at advocating one policy one year and reversing it the next. For example, in June 1908 the Liberals created a Budget League, a convenient mechanism to head meetings around the the United Kingdom to debate budget proposals. A meeting in Edinburgh in July saw an angry Churchill announce that if the Lords rejected the budget the government would dissolve Parliament and fight an immediate General Election.
Liberals were outraged that he had announced a non-existent policy. He found himself formerly rebuked, apologising a day later. In 1907, he had described the Lords as an anachronism, a “one-sided, hereditary, unpurged, unrepresentative, irresponsible and absentee”. In September he talked of a representative assembly and a miserable minority of titled persons who represent nobody”. A decade later Churchill was spouting the opposite sentiment. The hereditary House secured, “the vital breathing space for consideration and for more stable forces in the community to assert themselves”.
Churchill’s misogyny was self-evident. He refused to back women’s suffrage, an obsessive opposition that dogged his Dundee tenure from start to finish, having previously made public his belief women had rights “through your husband”. He varied the goading with “through your father, brother and son.” To Winston, women only had uses in the kitchen and the bedroom.
One Irish suffragette, Mary Maloney, a leading member of the Women’s Freedom League, followed him to every speaking event to ring a loud school bell as soon as he stood up to speak. Her most famous interruption was during his campaign speech at a Blackness factory in May, 1908. The meeting had to be aborted. Churchill struggled good-humored against the incessant clanking, but gave up in despair, saying,
“If that woman thinks that is a reasonable argument she may use it. I don’t care. I bid you all good afternoon.”
From then on Maloney was known as the “La Belle Maloney”.
She was not the only female warrior to torment him. The suffragette Ethel Muirhead pelted Churchill with an egg during a political meeting in 1910, while another suffragette jumped into his carriage at the Tay Bridge Station and harangued him. Like so many in the city, they were women working in the mills and factories, the breadwinner.
Tide and appendix turn
Throughout his representation Churchill was a minister in the cabinet in one post or another, but as the years went by high office failed to impress voters. By the time elections rolled round in 1922, Churchill just had an operation to remove his appendix, an operation that probably saved his life. Hospitalisation and recuperation delayed his campaigning in Dundee allowing opponents a free hand. Arriving late he threw himself into the fray with gusto – Churchill was never a slacker. He was renown for working hard whatever the task before him. Near the end of his tenure, where the opening speaker was drunk, Churchill tried to make a speech but was shouted down by the audience.
Churchill was thoroughly beaten by Edwin Scrymgeour, a native of Dundee who became the only person ever elected to the House of Commons on a prohibitionist ticket. He held the seat for nine lonely years. The election’s other candidate was E.D. Morel, a former conscientious objector who stood for the Independent Labour Party. Churchill’s Dundee “seat for life” was anything but.
The campaign coincided with Churchill losing his cabinet post and now had lost his seat. Dundonians had had enough of him. In fact, his wife Clementine, who had undertaken some of his campaigning, was just as intensely disliked, in her case for parading her wealth ostentatiously and her unacceptable English upper class attitudes.
Onward to destiny
Churchill’s open views on education also contributed to his flight from Dundee. He believed in a two-tier system, one for the elite and one for the masses. His idea of state-backed gambling was also rejected but came to fruition under Margaret Thatcher. In that he considered horse racing was for the rich and should be given state support, and greyhound racing was for the “new degeneracy” – working class gamblers.
He went on to stand as a totemic symbol of the power elite’s fear of social and political revolution, helping to crush the General Strike of 1926, protect land reform from taxation, giving tax breaks to wealthy Americans to live in the United Kingdom in “sporting counties”, and cutting the level of benefit for the unemployed.
His 14-year spell in Tayside, in which time he had raised funds from wealthy supporters for the Liberal Party one of whom was immediately knighted, was a history to which he never referred.
He lost by a landslide 12,000 votes to Scrymgeour who first stood against him in 1908. Dundonians were fly enough to realise they could elect a tee-totaller and drink to their win in the local pub.
As the Second World War approached, Churchill was still cold-shouldered by his parliamentary peers, he now a member of the Tory Party. By a fluke of world events his destiny awaited, and greatness was thrust upon him by default.
Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had tried in vain to broker a deal with Hitler to avoid a war with Europe. The Tory party was ready to hand Czechoslovakia over to Nazi imperialism and parts of Poland too, appeasement at almost any cost the policy of the day. Though a few in the party did not trust Hitler, Churchill stood alone among them advocating re-armament for a concerted attack on Germany’s ambitions.
When Chamberlain waved Hitler’s letter as he disembarked from the aeroplane, wearing his out-of-date wing collar and holding his trusty umbrella, claiming “peace in our time”, only later to learn the Nazi army was on the march, he was booed in parliament. He left Westminster a broken man.
With no other contenders for Tory leadership, Churchill, now proven prescient in his judgement of Hitler, saw himself elected as leader of the Conservative Party unopposed. In that regard, time and events came together.
After the war he was a justified hero. (His blunders during the war years were huge, but again that is for another chapter.) His speeches and appearances in bombed areas kept the British together and in hope. When it was over no one asked how he had entered the war bankrupt and in massive debt, but ended it with the equivalent of £2 million in his bank account. He was given a house in London free of rent for life and the status of a ‘great man’ conferred upon him.
Newspapers turned a blind eye to his increasing alcoholism, his gambling debts paid by unnamed admirers, his egotism rewriting history for his self-aggrandisement, and his affair with socialite, Lady Doris Castlerosse.
The public, however, remembered his transgressions of which there were many and bloody, not the least of which was the criminal Allied carpet bombing of Dresden that killed tens of thousands of innocents. The collapse that led to the humiliation of Dunkirk; the Norway shambles in 1940; the early defeats in North Africa; the complacency that led to the Germans’ Ardennes push and the chaos of the Sicily campaign were not easily forgotten. The walking wounded were home to tell the tale..
Days of glory over, once more Churchill found power slipping away from him when his party lost the General Election after the war. As for Dundonians, they went on to vote overwhelmingly for Scotland’s independence. Must be something in the water.
Readers might spot the odd trajectory line Churchill with Boris Johnson. Motivation for this study was Boris Johnson, his supporters going out of their way to depict him as the new Winston. (Johnson is also born of half-American, half British parents, but born in the USA.) Publishing a pot-boiler biography on Churchill and Johnson quoting him whenever it suits, is evidence of an attempt to resurrect days of Empire glory. Press pundits refer to Johnson as a ‘great leader’ in the making and a reincarnation. It is an accepted fact by his peers and critics alike that the UK’s self-appointed prime minister of the Union (where’s Gibraltar?) is a ruthless calculator of where his personal advantage lies. Johnson tells us is that his only core commitment is to himself. As for being another Churchill, readers can make their own judgement. Meanwhile, the Tory party revives the mythical ‘spirit of the Blitz’, calling the pandemic a ‘war’ with a ‘front-line’.
Origins of the Second World War – AJP Taylor; Letters to Clementine Hozier; Age of Extremes – Eric Hobsbawn; Memoirs of the Second World War – Winston Churchill; Churchill – Clive Ponting; Secret Affair – Professor Richard Toye; The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell – 1914 to 1944; Hansard 1908, 1910, 1922; Dundee Courier; Glasgow Herald; London Evening News; the Times.