Since his death in 1965, Winston Churchill has become a figure of such veneration, in Conservative circles, that it is sometimes difficult to see beyond this overwhelming aspect of his legacy. Adored by Margaret Thatcher, and still a regular point of reference for those nostalgic for Britain’s great days of Empire and of victory in Europe, his legacy increasingly attracts criticism and even hostility from those who reject that world view; and as Andrew Liddle points out in his fast-paced and fascinating new book about Churchill in Scotland, the growing polarisation of views about Churchill – not least around the debate on Scottish independence – tends to obscure and even misrepresent the memorable complexity and shifting allegiances of his early political life.
It’s therefore more than appropriate that Liddle’s new book should focus on Churchill’s 14-year period as MP for the city of Dundee, between 1908 and 1922; a time when Churchill was not a Conservative at all, but a notable and rising young Liberal politician and ally of Lloyd George. At the time, he was a strong supporter of Irish Home Rule – a policy that recommended him to Dundee’s large working-class Irish community – and by extension of home rule for Scotland and Wales; indeed, in 1911 he drafted a notably radical cabinet paper on a future federal structure for the entire UK, including the English regions.
Alongside his wife Clementine, he was also a passionate advocate for progressive social reform, shocked by the living conditions he observed in Dundee, and closely involved in the Asquith government’s groundbreaking plans for an embryonic national insurance scheme, and the introduction of an old age pension. At the time, Churchill was inclined to regard the nascent Labour Party as his ally in these causes, and enjoyed a very close working relationship with his fellow Dundee MP Alexander Wilkie, a trade unionist and “moderate” Labour man; and although Churchill himself was sceptical about the claims of the suffragettes who frequently – and often amusingly – disrupted his Dundee meetings, his wife Clementine did not hesitate to declare her support for the suffragette cause.
As Liddle’s meticulous history makes clear, it’s also worth noting that many of the supposed immoveable certainties of the British constitution have in fact – historically – been much more flexible. Churchill and Wilkie, for example, were able to develop their amiable partnership partly because they were joint representatives in parliament of a two-member constituency; while Churchill’s own career was vastly complicated by an anti-corruption rule, now sadly no longer in operation, which stated that an MP moving from the back benches into the cabinet had first to be re-elected in a constituency by-election.
And if we add to this kind of fascinating detail Liddle’s brilliant and forensic record of Churchill’s relationship with Dundee itself – the grandees of the local Liberal Party, the Thomson press with its constant accusations that he was an absentee MP and a carpet-bagger – then we have a brilliant study not only of one of the century’s great statesman at a formative stage in his career (Churchill was 33 when he first won his Dundee seat), but also of a whole dramatic era in British public life.
There is another book to be written, of course, about Churchill’s journey back to Conservatism, and into his legendary wartime premiership. As Andrew Liddle points out, though, it is both bad history and bad politics to allow that later journey to obscure the complexity of his earlier career; he is particularly irritated by the persisting myth that Churchill personally ordered the use of the military against strikers in Glasgow in 1919, when in fact he argued in cabinet for a cautious approach. And although this book is not flattered by its slightly forelock-tugging title, those who venture past the title page will find a rich and well-written history of stirring times, as well as a vital insight into the early career of a politician who – while always an advocate for Empire, with all its implicit racism and colonialism – was not always the dogged old reactionary of modern political legend; and who might well, one feels, often have had more in common with some of his contemporary critics, than with his more ardent and unsubtle 21st century admirers.
Cheers, Mr Churchill: Winston in Scotland, by Andrew Liddle, Birlinn, 272pp, £20