It was said in the war that although we had not invented an unsinkable ship we had succeeded in producing an unsinkable politician, and, whatever else may be said of Mr. Winston Churchill, it will be conceded that his buoyancy is nothing short of amazing. The two catastrophes of Antwerp and the Dardanelles failed to sink him. He has been several times upon a lee shore, battering himself to pieces—or so it seemed—upon the rocks of various obdurate constituencies. The vessel might seem to be derelict, detached without any hope of salvage or any powerful party political tug to tow it out of danger; and yet, somehow or other, it has always floated away, not merely to the open sea again, but into some prosperous harbor of ministerial office. The last case is the most remarkable of all. Mr. Churchill had detached himself, or had been detached, from the Liberal Party; he had refused to call himself a Conservative; he had been defeated in a whole series of elections and by-elections; he had defied the Conservative Central Office in the famous fight of the Abbey Division. Yet he succeeded in floating into Parliament in the wake of the recent great Conservative flood tide, and was straightway appointed, by Mr. Stanley Baldwin, to one of the chief departments of State. Such a success might be of interest to America, where I have heard that success is worshiped.
I am encouraged to write frankly on the subject by the fact that your country shared with my own the honor of—or the responsibility for—the production of this great man. If upon his father's side he is the son of that most brilliant of 'young' Conservatives, Lord Randolph Churchill, and the descendant of the great Duke of Marlborough, on his mother's side he looks to the family of Jerome and the city of New York. In our study of a great man we should begin before the birth, and although I am ill equipped in the history of the family of Jerome, I might suggest that in the history of the family of Churchill, and especially the greatest of the Churchills, there might be found some clue to this success.
Here in England, where we believe in heredity, we remember that the great Duke understood very well how and when to detach himself from one cause and to attach himself to another, and we find this trait distantly referred to, and piously admired, in Mr. Winston Churchill's life of his father:—
Lord Churchill's name will not be recorded on the bead-roll of either party. The Conservatives, whose forces he so greatly strengthened; the Liberals, some of whose finest principles he so notably sustained, must equally regard his life and work with mixed feelings.
As with the father, so with the son. I suppose the Liberals, and certainly the Conservatives, regard the work and record of Mr. Winston Churchill 'with mixed feelings.'
To begin at the beginning, our great man was born on November 30, 1874. As he has not yet written his own life we know too little of his youth, but in one of his father's letters, dated January 15, 1893, we find that the trait of 'unsinkableness' began early. 'I am happy to say,' Lord Randolph Churchill wrote from Bournemouth, 'Winston is going on well, and making a good and on the whole a rapid recovery. He had a miraculous escape from being smashed to pieces, as he fell thirty feet off a bridge over a chine, from which he tried to leap to the bough of a tree. What dreadfully foolhardy and reckless things boys do!'
It may have seemed foolhardy and reckless, but after all it is exactly what Mr. Churchill has been doing with complete success ever since—jumping from bridges to boughs, and from boughs to bridges, over abysmal chines, at prodigious risk, yet without fatal consequences.
It is appropriate that this adventurous spirit should have proposed for himself a career in the army. From Harrow he went to Sandhurst, and got his commission in 1895. There being no war within the British Empire at that time, he served with the Spanish forces in Cuba; but we were never long without war in those happy times before the League of Nations, and in 1897 he saw fighting with the Malakand Field Force on the North West Frontier of India. In 1898 we hear of him, as orderly officer with the Tirah Expeditionary Force, and in that same year he was fighting in the Nile Valley, and was present at the battle of Khartum. In the midst of these adventures he found time to write a novel, Savrola, which interests us chiefly as showing upon what the young soldier's mind was at work. It is a lurid tale of revolution, written a little in the style of Bulwer-Lytton, and, first appearing in Macmillan's Magazine, was published as a novel in 1900. The hero, Savrola, has a fine gift of rhetoric, and a complete command of all those catchwords of liberty which are the revolutionary stock in trade. Red flags, revolutions, bombs, and barricades surround and adorn his triumphant career.
Then came the South African War, in which the young Churchill took an almost leading part as correspondent of the Morning Post. Is it necessary to say that he was the centre of his own picture, the hero of his own tale? How he was captured in an armored train, taken to Pretoria, thrown into prison, escaped after reading Carlyle's Frederick the Great and John Stuart Mill's Essay on Liberty, managed to cross 280 miles of hostile territory to the Portuguese border—all these things, and many others, are they not written in his book, London to Ladysmith via Pretoria (1900)? The characteristic picture he drew of himself hiding in a deep-ravine amid a clump of trees still lingers in the minds of his admiring countrymen: 'My sole companion was a gigantic vulture, who manifested an extraordinary interest in my condition and made hideous and ominous gurglings from time to time.'
It was not the last time that vultures were cheated of their prey as they watched our subject's apparently, but deceptively, prostrate body.
But now we must come to politics, for in 1900 Mr. Churchill was elected as Conservative member for Oldham, and he entered politics toward the inglorious end of that great Conservative administration which was to be defeated, heavily and decisively, at the end of 1905. He notes in the life of his father that in 1880 the tendency of the day was 'strongly progressive' and that the position of the Conservative Party, on the other hand, was 'weak in the extreme.' And again: 'The sympathy and the intellect of the nation were estranged outmatched in debate, outnumbered in division, the Party was pervaded by a profound sense of gloom jeered at as the "Stupid Party," haunted by the profound distrust of an ever growing democracy, conscious that the march of ideas was leaving them behind.' All this might have been said by the unkind of the last days of the Balfour administration. Yet there were, at least, two men in the Party at that time who refused to be left behind in the march of ideas: Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, who tried in vain to save the Conservatives by unfolding his great policy of Imperial Preference, and Mr. Winston Churchill, who so strongly objected to Imperial Preference, or had such little faith in its saving power, that he joined the other side.
The Liberal Party, of which Mr. Churchill thus became a member, was hardly the place where we should expect to find a cavalry lieutenant and the son of Lord Randolph Churchill. Mr. Churchill's bias, as I am happy to testify, had been toward Nationalism—a patriotism almost of the jingo kind, flushed indeed with an imperialism of the South African War, and tinged with an inherited sense of a class designed for rule. The Liberals cared for none of these things. They had not quite dared to oppose the war, but they had gathered courage with the mistakes of our South African generals, and had almost reached the side of the Boers by the time it ended. They had indeed, as a party tradition, a certain grudge against the British Empire, a certain hostility toward both the navy and the army. There were, it is true, shades of distinction within the Party itself: Mr. Asquith and Sir Edward Grey (now Lord Grey) led the Liberals of the Right, and were rather friendly than otherwise toward the Empire, against which the Radicals of the Left, led by such sharpshooters as Mr. Labouchere and Mr. Lloyd George, kept up a constant and harassing fire. The Prime Minister of those days, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, maintained an unsteady balance between the two extremes, but leaned rather to the Right than to the Left, and we may suppose that it was to strengthen his Right hand rather than his Left that he made Mr. Churchill, who had been returned as Liberal member for Central Manchester, Under Secretary for the Colonies.
The Liberals, although they did not like the traditions of their young recruit, were fain to admire his talents. He was an orator and a pamphleteer at least as brilliant as his father and like his father he had a fine talent for the business of politics. In 1908 he became President of the Board of Trade, and in 1910 Home Secretary.
In that autobiographical fragment, The World Crisis, 1911 to 1915, our hero tells the world that when he was appointed Home Secretary he began to discover the activities of a regular and extensive system of German-paid British agents. This discovery, he says, dominated his mind for seven years, so that he thought of little else. 'Liberal politics, the People's Budget, Free Trade, Peace, Retrenchment and Reform,—all the war cries of our election struggles began to seem unreal in the presence of this new preoccupation.' That may be so, but to a man of Mr. Churchill's energy even the German espionage system was insufficient to fill the whole day, and he came in touch with a thread, or rather with a live wire, of another no less formidable conspiracy, in a fashion so dramatic that I must say something of it here.
On the sixteenth of December, 1910, the London police, suspecting a burglary, tried to force a jeweler's shop in Houndsditch, and were met by bullets which killed three and wounded two others. In pursuit of the criminals they stormed a house in Stepney on the third of January, 1911. Thus began the famous 'Siege of Sidney Street,' in which Mr. Churchill took a dramatic and—need I add?—a central part. The struggle was as thrilling as anything in Savrola: for seven hours picked shots of the Scots Guards and Army police returned the fire of the anarchists, Mr. Churchill directing operations from a coign of vantage. Then the house went up in flames, and its whole garrison, two foreign desperadoes, deservedly perished in the conflagration. The names of the queer fish dredged up by the police in this strange affair—Jacob Peters, Yourka Dubof, John Zelin (alias Rosen), Mina Vassileva, George Gardstein, and Peter Piatkow (alias Peter the Painter)—have a more familiar and significant sound now than they had then. It was, in fact,—if he had only known it,—Mr. Churchill's first introduction to the Bolsheviki.
It is possible that the Liberals did not quite like their Home Secretary in so startling a role, nor were they altogether reconciled by the energetic measures he took to quell the industrial rioting at Tonypandy in South Wales, and the railway strike of 1911. These incidents suggest the man of action, the ex-officer of cavalry, rather than the enthusiast for the principles of Liberalism. They even shocked some of the old women among the Conservatives: 'In recent times,' said Lord Robert Cecil, 'no Minister had in so few months committed a greater series of outrages on Liberty and Justice.'
But now events were sloping darkly down to the tremendous cataclysm in which all such trifles were lost and forgotten. At the moment the politics of our country were wholly absorbed in an Irish Crisis: Ulster threatened armed resistance to separation. Mr. Churchill, who was by this time First Lord of the Admiralty, threw himself into the fray. 'Let the red blood flow,' he exclaimed as he ordered a battle squadron and flotilla to Lamlash, a base convenient for Belfast. Long afterward Mr. Churchill explained that he gave these orders in the hope that 'the popularity and influence of the Royal Navy might produce a peaceable solution even if the Army had failed.' Yet it is not, after all, altogether surprising that the Germans drew larger and darker conclusions from these alarms and excursions. 'How could they,' Mr. Churchill himself reflects, 'discern or measure the deep unspoken understandings which lay far beneath the froth and foam and fury of the storm?' How indeed? It was a deplorable and costly error. The Germans should have better understood how far our political play-acting could go! In the midst of this possibly too realistic drama came war, and amid the 'darkened scene of Europe' Mr. Churchill—as he suggests, upon his own responsibility—'pulled over the various levers which successively brought our naval organization into full preparedness.' The credit for these eleventh-hour precautions has, however, been disputed by the envious.
I should be the last to refuse our hero due credit for his share in winning the Great War, but there is some danger that the uninstructed reader of the aforementioned work might gather that Mr. Churchill was sole autocrat in the Admiralty, and not advised, and to some extent controlled, by an extremely efficient board of real experts in war. When we find him using such phrases as this, for example, 'I said to the Admirals, "Use Malta as if it were Toulon,"' we might think that all the decisions and moves in that intricate and deadly game of chess called war were made on our side by an amateur. But these impressions might easily be exaggerated. There were others.
It may be admitted, however, that the headstrong young man took a larger part in this technical matter than was altogether safe or prudent. 'Looking back with after knowledge and increased years,' he himself confesses, 'I seem to have been too ready to undertake tasks which were hazardous or even forlorn.' One of these was the unlucky Antwerp intervention at the beginning of October 1914. The higher Belgian Command had decided to evacuate the weak and antiquated defenses of the peaceful and extremely vulnerable seaport. Mr. Churchill upon the instant determined that Antwerp must be saved and that he must save it. He persuaded his colleagues to allow him to go 'to ascertain what could be done on either side.' He persuaded them also to allow him to throw a regiment of extremely valuable marines and a corps of untrained naval volunteers into the breach. Nay more; he himself, as he tells us, 'strongly argued with the Belgians against evacuation,' and even took a part in directing field operations, with the result that Antwerp narrowly escaped entire destruction, the Belgian army was very nearly cornered, and part of our naval brigade was forced over into Holland, where it had to remain for the rest of the war.
Then we had the even more serious business of the Dardanelles, that 'legitimate gamble,' as Mr. Churchill afterward called it, which cost us so terribly dear. In the second volume of The World Crisis, Mr. Churchill describes—with, I trust, exaggerated emphasis—the influence he brought to bear upon our experts to force them into this forlorn hope. 'Nothing that I could do,' he complains in one passage, 'could overcome the Admirals now that they had definitely stuck their toes in.' And again he tells us that Lord Fisher, his First Sea Lord, explained to him his resignation on May 16, 1915, in the following words: 'You are bent on forcing the Dardanelles, and nothing will turn you from it—nothing—I know you so well!'
Whether in spite of or because of these and other political interventions, the course of the war did not go prosperously for Mr. Asquith's administration. The House of Commons and the country contrived—with some slight shadow of excuse—to lay at least part of the blame on the First Lord of the Admiralty, and Mr. Asquith was forced to a reconstruction which left Mr. Churchill out. Our hero thereupon bade a dramatic farewell to the House of Commons, and once more drew his sword from its sheath. But it was not for long. Mr. Asquith fell and Mr. Churchill, remembering that Mr. Lloyd George had been the 'first to welcome him when he crossed the floor of the House on the Free Trade issue in 1904,' returned from the shell-ploughed fields of Flanders to the political arena. The new Prime Minister, in fact, was a kindred spirit. He also was 'winning the war' by his native genius, with an even slighter equipment of military science, and he found a place for Mr. Churchill, first as Minister of Munitions, and then as Secretary of State for War and for Air.
I must pass quickly over the later part of his share in the history of the Coalition. As Secretary of State for the Colonies he was deeply involved in the not altogether fortunate experiment in Dominion Home Rule which resulted in the Irish Free State. He took part in the negotiations with the Sinn Fein delegates, and even went so far as to express his admiration for the late Michael Collins, in whom, perhaps, he may have seen the hero of Savrola come to life. There were four ministers of the Coalition chiefly concerned in those negotiations—Mr. Lloyd George, Mr. Austen Chamberlain, Lord Birkenhead, and Mr. Churchill—and upon them was concentrated the blast of resentment which had been gathering strength for some time in the Conservative Party. The Die-Hards were not very strong in the House of Commons, but they were strong among the rank and file of the Conservative Party in the constituencies, and, moreover, they expressed the national sentiment. In my article on Mr. Stanley Baldwin, in the Atlantic for August 1923, 1 described how the storm gathered force until at last it swept all before it in the famous Carlton Club meeting. There is no need to retell the story here, since Mr. Churchill was not a member of the Club. As a Liberal Member of the Coalition, however, he suffered the full consequence, and shared in the resulting fall.
Then began what I might call the political Wanderjahre of our hero. He had long before been driven out of North West Manchester by Sir William Joynson Hicks, and had found refuge in Dundee, a busy and none too agreeable city in the East of Scotland. There he was now defeated by our one-and-only prohibitionist, Mr. Scrymgeour, and the pacifist and pro-German, Mr. E. D. Morel, who had by this time joined the Labor Party. He was defeated again at West Leicester, and a third time in the Abbey Division of Westminster. A notable change seemed to come over Mr. Churchill's politics as he moved through these successive defeats from the north to the south of these islands. At Dundee he had flirted with Socialism, and supported the nationalization of railways; at West Leicester he was distinctly 'reactionary,' and at Westminster he proposed for himself the role of leading a new anti-Socialist party. He was, in fact, making a stronger and stronger bid for Conservative support, as he saw the breach widen between the Liberals and himself. Yet he hesitated to burn his boats and clung desperately to a middle position of 'Constitutionalist,' between the Liberal sea and the Conservative shore. These coy reservations delayed complete reunion, and although the Conservative 'machine' might have been willing to ignore them, Conservative electors were stubbornly distrustful.
I witnessed the dramatic defeat of our hero at the Abbey election. The ballots were being counted at tables in the Caxton Hall. All three candidates and their immediate friends were gathered on the floor; Mr. Churchill paced restlessly to and fro like a caged lion all through that anxious morning. Some indiscreet friend anticipated the count by calculations of his own; the rumor flew round that Mr. Churchill had won; there was a cheer, a wild shaking of hands, a fluttering of handkerchiefs. But the counting proceeded; pitiless Destiny in the shape of the Returning Officer announced the horrid truth: Mr. Churchill had been defeated by forty votes. 'Ah,' said the critics, 'he is dead. He has been buried in the Abbey!' Little did they realize the resiliency of our hero. His rise was to be no less dramatic than his fall.
There was one circumstance in particular which favored the revival. Mr. Churchill had denounced early and strongly the Revolutionaries of Russia, whom Mr. Lloyd George had inclined to patronize. He had faithfully described to the British public the manner in which that 'terrible sect' had infected Russia with the virus of Bolshevism; this and such a barbed as 'bloody baboonery' had stuck in the public mind, so that, as the danger of Communism visibly increased, Mr. Churchill came to be looked upon as a gladiator on the side of Society. The great man, it is needless to say, rose to the occasion. As his distance from the Radicals grew wider, so his denunciations waxed always the stronger, till he came to be generally regarded as a sort of British Mussolini.
By this time Mr. Ramsay MacDonald and his Government were being forced more and more under the dominion of Moscow. The more they went to the Left, in obedience to the extremists of their own party, the more the country looked to Conservatism for its protection, and the better it suited Mr. Churchill's new role of Savior of Society. He found an unobtrusive Conservative vacancy in the sylvan, shades of Epping Forest, and there, without actually calling himself a Conservative, he received Conservative support and was swept into Parliament in the wake of the great Conservative victory.
And now to come to the greatest triumph of all—for the tidal wave of Conservatism did not merely drag him in its wake; it caught him up and tossed him into the topmost office, almost, of the new administration. Exactly why Mr. Stanley Baldwin chose Mr. Winston Churchill as his Chancellor of the Exchequer has never been—and probably never will be—completely explained. By sacrificing not merely the fatted calf but the national cow in honor of the Prodigal Son, the new Prime Minister risked offending all those elder brothers of Conservatism who needed no repentance. He even risked his own inheritance—since there are thought to be no bounds to Mr. Churchill's ambitions. To have a cuckoo in one's nest is a misfortune; to put one there might be thought a folly. It is commonly believed that a long intrigue had been going on among certain politicians and certain magnates of the press to bring about the downfall of Mr. Baldwin and restore to power the old Coalition or something like it. Such a combination would have included—so it is said—members of Mr. Baldwin's present administration, and was even intended to embrace—eventually—Mr. Lloyd George himself. The calculation was, it may be supposed, that an electoral stalemate would have reproduced the former three-party position in Parliament, an ideal state of affairs for such a cabal; but the completeness of the Conservative victory threw out all the fine-laid plans of the plotters, and left them—or such of them as belonged to the Conservative Party—entirely at the disposition of Mr. Baldwin.
Now Mr. Baldwin is magnanimous to a fault: it is probable that he knew all about the intrigue, although he included some of the intriguers in his Government. He chose, in fact, the members of his administration for their ability and without respect to his personal feelings toward them, or theirs toward him. But in the case of Mr. Churchill, to whom he owed, and who owed him, nothing, he may have thought that trust and generosity would beget loyalty, and that a bold experiment might procure him a faithful as well as an able colleague.
Mr. Churchill—or so his friends say—is the sort of man who gives faith for faith, magnanimity for magnanimity. It is probable that he has always been by instinct a Conservative; his career suggests instincts of patriotism and courage—not altogether sicklied o'er with the pale cast of Liberalism. The husks that the swine did eat could never have been to him a congenial diet, and the prodigal brings back to his party great political talents which should never have been estranged.
We shall see. There are, on the other hand, a good many Conservatives—including some of the staunchest and least self-seeking—who are disappointed and almost estranged by this appointment. They allege that Mr. Churchill has made at least one capital blunder in every one of the many offices he has held; that—what is worse—he has never shown any sign of political principle; and that his only consistency has been in the pursuit of his own political fortunes. They argue that the leopard does not change his spots nor the Ethiopian his skin, and they fear that even the brilliancy of the new Chancellor is erratic and may lead to some far-shining and illustrious calamity.
There is another objection to the appointment which might be argued with more show of reason. Mr. Churchill may be a gladiator in the fight against Communism; but he has in his career brought down upon himself the animosity, not only of the Communists, but of a very large number of workingmen and ex-service men of all parties. Nor has he ever shown any perception of the truth that the Revolutionary movement cannot be fought by rhetoric alone, nor altogether by violence, but should be met by the fundamental remedy of protecting our industries, and so restoring the unemployed to employment. He has never, in fact, drawn the economic lesson from the old adage: 'Satan finds some mischief still for idle hands to do.' If he remains a Free-Trader, he will be of little service—and may even be embarrassment—to a Government pledged to the 'safeguarding' of industries and Imperial Preference.
Mr. Baldwin once said that he owed much to his friends; they certainly are not the sort of people who claim anything in return for their fidelity. Yet it might be said for them—what will not be said by them—that out of them Mr. Baldwin might have formed an administration, less showy, perhaps, but more trustworthy, less glittering but more solid, less brilliant but better principled, on whom he (and the nation) might have counted from the first and to the uttermost. He has preferred to make an experiment in fidelity; he may be justified by the result, but in the meantime it is still permissible to congratulate him on the ample margin of his majority.