Winston Churchill: Tory or Liberal?

Winston Churchill“I am an English Liberal. I hate the Tory Party, their men, their words and their methods.” So said Winston Churchill in 1903.

As a Liberal, Churchill held high government office and, along with Lloyd George, was regarded as one of the driving forces of Asquith’s reforming administration. Was Liberalism his true political ideology? Or should we judge his position from his re-ratting in 1924 and his long association and later leadership of the Conservatives?

Those were the questions posed in the latest Liberal Democrat History Group meeting, held at the party’s spring conference. In case you were not at conference, or were there but not able to make it into the standing room only venue!, you can now watch the meeting online:

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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15 Comments

  • Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera 14th Apr '12 - 1:29pm

    Quote from Churchill: “I do not agree that the dog in a manger has the final right to the manger even though he may have lain there for a very long time. I do not admit that right. I do not admit for instance, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the black people of Australia. I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.” (To the Peel Commission 1937)

    Not very liberal, and certainly not Liberal in my opinion, and there is lots more of this to demonstrate that ‘Winnie’ was not a very chap, albeit he was essential during a specific period of British history, but that was then and not now.

  • Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera 14th Apr '12 - 1:31pm

    Sorry, I should have said “‘Winnie’ was not a very pleasant chap…”

  • matt severn 14th Apr '12 - 2:12pm

    At university we were banned from using Winsron Churchill as an example to prove anything, as he would almost always contradict one policy position with another later on in life.
    He was a unique individual. Without him there is a very strong chance that Britain would have signed a peace treaty with Hitler, so in that respect he is the saviour of liberal democracy. But not a liberal.

  • Paul Johnston 14th Apr '12 - 3:17pm

    I think there is a clue about the context within which his use of words might be seen:

    “I do not admit that a wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race to put it that way, has come in and taken their place.”

    The use of ” to put it that way” suggests he was making a point in a context that today, maybe construed as racist, when in fact he is only communicating that point in the language of the audience, rather than his own views.

    I took for it that the movement of ‘peoples’ and their subjugation by each other is the march of history not a moral matter of right or wrong except in individual action.

    A not uncommon belief in Victorian and Edwardian times.

  • Ruwan Uduwerage-Perera 14th Apr '12 - 3:55pm

    A few more possible misinterpretations:

    “In 1943, Winston Churchill, then prime minister, was speaking to the British Cabinet about the famine that was raging through Bengal, India. Churchill told the secretary of state for India, Leo Amery, that the Indians were “the beastliest people in the world, next to the Germans…and would continue to breed like rabbits”

    Source: Mark Burdman (1994) New British research exposes Churchill as genocidal racist

    You will noted from the link that even some extremist Right Wing White Nationalist Nazis organisations such as Stormfront are keen to align Churchill’s racist diatribe with their agenda http://www.nazi.org.uk/political%20pdfs/WinstonChurchill-RacistAndEugenicist.pdf. With friends like this, who needs enemies ?

    The reality is that had it not been for the Second World War, I suspect that we would not all have such an admiration for Winston Churchill? He was a rather vocal, and larger than life caricature of his times, who defended the continuance of the Empire, and the British superiority over their dominions , so inevitably he was certainly not liberal or Liberal as we would define today, or I suspect even when he was alive. I cannot even remember my grandparents being overly complimentary about the old chap, even though they respected how he brought the nation together in WWII.

  • To put it more politely. I don’t see why anyone, especially a liberal, would want to idolise, lionise and claim ‘great men’. In my opinion liberals should be focused on the achievements of societies and communities, and putting anyone on such a peddle-stall is not liberal but rather quite a right-wing and authoritarian thing to do, not to mention simply mistaken. Winston Churchill was a great rhetorician and politician who was perhaps the right man for a certain time and place but, as anyone who has studied his life will know, he wasn’t a pleasant individual and was given to capricious and ill-judged opinions.

  • Paul Walter Paul Walter 14th Apr '12 - 7:05pm

    @Rob Well said. Remember: He was ‘the man who sent the Black and Tans to Ireland’. He opposed the independence of India with great tenacity. He was responsible for nearly half a million casualties in the ill-judged Dardenelles offensive in the First World War. On the good side he set up Job Centres (in those days “Labour Exchanges”) while he was a Liberal minister.

    He was a great man. Like most great men he had a very long and active career covering a vast number of subject areas (his literary output was prolific and he was also an artist. So, inevitably there is good and bad in there. (On a frivilous note I have seen one of the walls he built as a bricklayer. It’s very irregular indeed.) You can also find the odd mess-up in Gladstone’s story, for example.

    So, indeed, a great man, but not one I would claim as a great liberal. The Tory party are welcome to him. But we should remember that his greatest achievements, in the Second World War years 1940-1945, were not as the head of a Conservative government, but as the head of a National Coalition government which included Labour and Liberal cabinet ministers.

    Anyone claiming him as a Liberal should remember that he later referred to the Liberal Party’s part in his career as “any hack to get out of the stables”.

  • always an interesting discussion, what modern party a given individual would have belonged to had they been alive today.. what party would Jesus have belonged to.?

  • @George Potter: You nailed it.

  • As liberalism is an ideology which puts at its core the freedom of the individual, why is it illiberal to celebrate and revere individuals that have attained a status of “greatness”? I’m personally inspired by the great individuals of our Whig/Radical/Liberal tradition.

  • “As liberalism is an ideology which puts at its core the freedom of the individual, why is it illiberal to celebrate and revere individuals that have attained a status of “greatness” ”

    Well I know that you are not exactly saying that celebrating great individuals is the essence of liberalism, as Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia go to show the celebration of great individuals is completely compatible with an authoritarian, totalitarian and uniform society- the complete antithesis of liberalism. The problem isn’t so much celebrating the actual achievements of these men, but lionising them out of all proportion to their deeds. When you put people on such a high pedestal you inevitably ignore or downplay the contributions of all the other individuals in the society As such worshipping ‘Great men’ is usually anti-liberal and anti-individualistic, implying that only a handful of individuals have the power to shape the course of history rather than every individual.

    The other issue is that, as George says, there are no ‘Great men’ as such. Yes there are people with magnificent talents, but being a talented individual in one respect does not make you always right about everything, always a good person and always deserving of respect and Churchill is a prime example of this fact. Simply acquiescing and submitting to the authority or reputation of certain individuals is not a very liberal thing to do at all, in doing so one surrenders one’s own individuality.

  • Christopher Bakes 20th Nov '16 - 10:04pm

    Is no one concerned about Matt Severn’s comment that at university he and fellow students were banned from using Churchill as an example of anything? Isn’t that rather an indictment of what today passes for liberalism? I.e., the fake openness to all ideas, as long as they agree with your ideas. Which, of course, is actually illiberal.

    What kind of learning can possibly go on at a university that bans entire categories of things?

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