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Conservatives Might Want to Reconsider Their Love for Winston Churchill

The former British prime minister’s support for progressive economic ideas has been largely unappreciated by history.

H.F. Davis/Getty Images

In recent days, protests against racism in the United States have spread to the United Kingdom, where activists are advocating the removal of statues honoring Prime Minister Winston Churchill because of his racist views. Conservatives such as current Prime Minister Boris Johnson have come to Churchill’s defense, but they might not be so quick to do so if they were familiar with Churchill’s largely unknown progressive past.

There is no dispute about Churchill being a racist by today’s sensibilities. For example, in his book, The River War, Churchill wrote: “How dreadful are the curses which Mohammedanism lays on its votaries! Besides the fanatical frenzy, which is as dangerous in a man as hydrophobia in a dog, there is this fearful fatalistic apathy. The effects are apparent in many countries. Improvident habits, slovenly systems of agriculture, sluggish methods of commerce, and insecurity of property exist wherever the followers of the Prophet rule or live. A degraded sensualism deprives this life of its grace and refinement; the next of its dignity and sanctity.”

In 2005, South African President Thabo Mbeki quoted this passage in a speech attacking colonialism. Said Mbeki, it “tells the whole story about what our colonial masters thought of us.”

In fairness, at the time, Churchill’s support for British imperialism was very widely held among the masses and aristocrats alike. Conservatives such as the British historian Andrew Roberts still defend it today: “Africa has never known better times than during British rule where beforehand there was anarchy and all too often afterwards tyranny.” Tellingly, the quoted passage appears only in the first edition of Churchill’s book, published in 1899, and was expunged in the 1902 and later editions. This suggests that he knew he had gone too far, even by the era’s standards.

The moderation of Churchill’s racist writings coincided with his estrangement from the Tories. As he later put it, “I said a lot of stupid things when I worked with the Conservative Party, and I left because I did not want to go on saying stupid things.”

Churchill joined the House of Commons as a Conservative in 1901 but soon found himself at odds with the party leadership on a number of issues, leading him to join the Liberal Party in 1904. He remained a Liberal for 20 years before rejoining the Conservatives.

The proximate cause of Churchill’s first party switch was the Conservatives’ turn toward protectionism, while he remained a committed free trader. In a 1904 speech, Churchill explained that the principal problem with protection was that its short-sightedness inevitably led to rising costs and reduced competitiveness for British industry.

First, the higher costs for imports, especially food, lowers the standard of living for workers, which reduces their spending on domestically produced goods. That, in turn, leads to demands for higher wages, raising the cost of domestic production. Second, many of the inputs domestic manufacturers needed in order to produce had to be imported. In particular, cotton had to be imported for Britain’s large textile industry. Higher costs due to protection would therefore raise the cost of production, which would force up prices, making British goods less competitive on world markets and further reduce the standard of living for workers.

Thus, Churchill said, the manufacturer would lose in three ways: “He will lose as a great consumer through having to pay more for all he uses; he will lose as a competitor in neutral markets by not being able to compete so well with his rivals; and he will lose because people at home and abroad will not have so much money to spend on the things he makes.”

Additionally, Churchill feared that protection would lead to further concentration of British industry, as manufacturers combined to raise prices and protect profits. Free trade, by contrast, helped maintain competition, which was the lifeblood of British industry.

Simultaneously, Churchill was becoming increasingly concerned about the problems of working people and supported social welfare measures similar to those that the German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had enacted in Germany in the late nineteenth century. As early as 1906, Churchill favored a government guarantee for employment and the nationalization of natural monopolies such as railroads. As he said:

I am of opinion that the State should increasingly assume the position of the reserve employer of labor. I am very sorry we have not got the railways of this country in our hands. We may do something better with the canals, and we are all agreed … that the State must increasingly and earnestly concern itself with the care of the sick and the aged, and, above all, of the children.

I look forward to the universal establishment of minimum standards of life and labor, and their progressive elevation as the increasing energies of production may permit. I do not think that Liberalism in any circumstances can cut itself off from this fertile field of social effort, and I would recommend you not to be scared in discussing any of these proposals, just because some old woman comes along and tells you they are Socialistic. If you take my advice, you will judge each case on its merits.

In 1908, the Liberal Party took control of Parliament and put forward a progressive “People’s Budget” in 1909, involving higher taxes on the wealthy and the creation of new social welfare programs. Churchill sounded very much like Bernie Sanders in defending this budget:

There are a great many people who will tell you that such a policy, as I have been endeavoring to outline to you this afternoon, will not make our country stronger, because it will sap the self-reliance of the working classes. It is very easy for rich people to preach the virtues of self-reliance to the poor. It is also very foolish, because, as a matter of fact, the wealthy, so far from being self-reliant, are dependent on the constant attention of scores, and sometimes even hundreds, of persons who are employed in waiting upon them and ministering to their wants. I think you will agree with me, on the other hand—knowing what you do of the life of this city and of the working classes generally—that there are often trials and misfortunes which come upon working-class families quite beyond any provision which their utmost unaided industry and courage could secure for them. Left to themselves, left absolutely to themselves, they must be smashed to pieces, if any exceptional disaster or accident, like recurring sickness, like the death or incapacity of the breadwinner, or prolonged or protracted unemployment, fall upon them.

There is no chance of making people self-reliant by confronting them with problems and with trials beyond their capacity to surmount. You do not make a man self-reliant by crushing him under a steam roller. Nothing in our plans will relieve people from the need of making every exertion to help themselves, but, on the contrary, we consider that we shall greatly stimulate their efforts by giving them for the first time a practical assurance that those efforts will be crowned with success.

Even long after Churchill rejoined the Conservatives, he maintained his support for an expansive welfare state. As leader of the Conservative Party, Churchill drafted a manifesto going into the 1950 elections that was substantively little different from that of the socialist Labor Party. As The New York Times reported: “In brief the Labor Party program proposes to carry the nation still farther along the road to socialism, but at a reduced speed during the next five years. The Conservative program proposes to recoil somewhat from socialism but not the whole distance.”

The Times quoted the liberal Guardian newspaper as saying that the Conservative program was “hardly distinguishable from the program of the Socialist Government except that there is to be no more avowed nationalization.” The conservative Daily Express agreed, saying, “Plainly, the Tory chiefs see the problem very much as the Socialists do.”

While it is true that Churchill did, on occasion, sound like F.A. Hayek on the dangers of socialism, his major speech on the subject in 1945 was so badly received that it was dubbed the “Gestapo speech” for being so over-the-top. It was widely blamed for the unexpected Conservative defeat that year. Not surprisingly, the conservative historian Roberts leans heavily on that speech in defending Churchill against charges of being a progressive. However, it is much more revealing that while serving as prime minister, Churchill strongly supported national health insurance and did very little to scale back Britain’s welfare state. (The same could be said of Margaret Thatcher, as well.)

In recent years, there has been renewed attention to Churchill’s long and consistent record of support for progressive domestic policies. In 1999, the biographer Malcolm Hill published Churchill: His Radical Decade, and in 2011, George Watson of Cambridge University penned an article for The American Scholar on “The Forgotten Churchill.” But this history is still largely unknown to Churchill’s large number of adoring fans on the right on both sides of the Atlantic—and perhaps his critics on the left, as well.