I’ve spent the last week trying to find the original source of Winston Churchill’s most famous remark about Scotland: “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” The location, if he even said it, remains elusive, but so does any comprehensive book about Churchill’s relationship with Scotland, writes Alastair Stewart.
It’s a remarkable omission given just how much material chronicles every facet of Churchill’s life. So why have the Scots forsaken the man who was one of Britain’s greatest leaders and Dundee’s Member of Parliament for 14 years?
The ‘wisdom’ of social media tells us that Churchill was the carpetbagging MP for Dundee between 1908 and 1922, the man who personally deployed tanks in the ‘Battle of George Square’ in 1919 and a warmonger who schemed to sacrifice Scotland to the Nazis in 1940.
The last two claims have been robustly rejected. Churchill, on the advice of Field Marshal Sir Edmund Ironside, concentrated Britain’s military defences in south-east England in anticipation of a Nazi invasion across the English Channel, but Scotland was still heavily defended. Churchill was Secretary of State for War during the Glasgow strikes but was not even a member of the War Cabinet that opted to only provide military support to local authorities if it was requested (as troops were by the Sheriff of Lanarkshire in 1919 – the ‘iconic’ tanks arriving three days after the strike was over).
To compound the issue, many think Churchill was chased out of Dundee. Tony Paterson, in one of the few books about Churchill and Scotland, expertly chronicles his time as an MP in ‘Churchill: A Seat for Life’. In truth, Churchill didn’t excel as a constituency MP and kept his eye more on ministerial office, including as Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. His views didn’t always coincide with the predominantly working-class sentiments of Dundee, but the electorate did return him at five elections. Churchill was hardly any different to other MPs of the day who found the responsibilities of ministerial office in London and the distance to Scotland’s constituencies a difficult challenge.
In need of a seat in 1908, he notoriously said to his mother that Dundee is “a life seat and cheap and easy beyond all experience”. He also later wrote to his wife: “This city will kill me. Halfway through my kipper this morning an enormous maggot crawled out and flashed his teeth at me.” After losing in 1922, he quipped: “I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.”
It clearly wasn’t all bad, reflecting in a speech in Edinburgh in 1942 that: “I still reserve affectionate memories of the banks of the Tay.”
For decades half-truths about Churchill’s supposed disregard or even contempt for Scotland have congealed, and he now personifies a myth of English oppression. The absence of a singular resource about Churchill and Scotland have turned prevailing myths into fact and social media the de facto reference for factoids. That it took until 2008 for a commemorative plaque of any sort to mark Churchill’s tenure as MP for Dundee is a case in point.
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It is, however, far from the whole truth about Churchill and Scotland. Andrew Dewar Gibb, in his brilliant book, ‘With Winston Churchill at the Front’ chronicles Churchill’s command of the Royal Scots Fusiliers on the Western Front in 1916. He cared for his men, could carry off a Glengarry and as, Gibb records, made a speech to the regiment celebrating that Scotland had given him “his wife, his constituency, and his regiment. This was of course greeted with salvoes of cheering.”
Not only was Churchill’s wife, Clementine, of Scottish descent and briefly educated in Edinburgh, but his son, Randolph, took part in the highly charged by-election for Ross and Cromarty in 1936 (losing to Malcolm MacDonald, son of former Prime Minister Ramsay) against his father’s wishes. Churchill was also elected Lord Rector of Edinburgh University in 1929.
There are also whimsical connections, too. Churchill had a lifelong affinity to Scotch whisky, as Cita Stelzer charts in her splendid book ‘Churchill: Policy-Making at the Dinner Table’. His cook, Georgina Landemare, recorded that Dundee cake was his favourite cake and Stelzer adds that he was extremely partial to Scottish grouse. Churchill even considered purchasing a small estate near Edinburgh before buying his lifelong home of Chartwell in 1922.
A YouTube search for ‘Churchill and Scotland’ yields a joyous trove of British Pathé videos generally forgotten. In 1942, Churchill was bestowed the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh (an honour he turned down from Dundee, no less). When granting the honour, the Lord Provost William Darling said “The British people have found none greater than he in their greatest hour, and none who matches it more fittingly, more nobly, or more greatly.”
In 1949, Churchill addressed the Scottish Unionists at a packed Ibrox stadium, saying the nationalisation programme of Clement Attlee’s Labour government threatened the “independence Scotland has exercised in so many fields ... no sharper challenge could be given to Scottish nationalist sentiment than the socialism of Whitehall”. Churchill was adamant Labour threatened Scots’ devolved control, advocating the protection of home rule in all but name: “The quickest way for the people of Scotland to regain a proper control over their own affairs is to dismiss the socialists from public office.”
Part of the problem is Churchill has been cast as an exclusively English figure. His daughter, Mary Soames, surmised it best in a letter to her father in his final years: “I owe you what every English man, woman and child does – Liberty itself.”
For Scots, using “English” for “British” is an irksome conflation. As he arrives on pound notes, is there any way for Scots to think of Churchill as one of their own? For starters, there’s a supreme irony that Churchill, the world’s “greatest Englishman”, was born on November 30, St Andrew’s Day. Every year the day comes, and barely a few draw the connection. Perhaps the only other premier in British history to have suffered as confused and as misunderstood relationship with Scotland is Margaret Thatcher.
Trevor Royle’s ‘A Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War’, ‘If Hitler Comes’ by Gordon Barclay and ‘Fascist Scotland’ by Gavin Bowd are exemplars of research into Scotland and the Second World War. ‘The Scottish Secretaries’ by David Torrance gives equal insight into how Churchill worked with Tom Johnston, his energised wartime Secretary of State for Scotland, but no one text completes the whole picture of who Churchill was to Scotland and who the Scots were to him. There is more to Scotland and Churchill than people know and, as he borrowed from Charles Murray and repeated to Edinburgh in 1942, “Auld Scotland counts for something still”.
Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and journalist. He writes regular features on politics and history with a particular interest in nationalism and the life of Sir Winston Churchill. Read more from Alastair at www.agjstewart.com and follow him on Twitter @agjstewart