Explaining the Puzzle of Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill and Bernard Baruch

In a 1939 radio address, Winston Churchill memorably described Stalinist Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  This could also characterize how he was viewed by many of his contemporaries and chroniclers.  

He was born and raised as a member of England’s aristocracy, yet he led the fight to strip the hereditary House of Lords of its veto power over measures enacted by the House of Commons.  He was an early and strong advocate for Irish Home Rule within the British Empire, yet he vehemently opposed the idea for India, arguing that it was not ready.  When the Irish rebelled after World War One, Churchill, as Home Secretary, ruthlessly suppressed the uprising, only to play a key role in the political settlement that granted the southern half of Ireland complete independence. He was a notorious strike breaker during the wave of labor protests in the 1920s, yet he was a champion for restricting working hours to a 40-hour week and regulating factory working conditions, and he was an early advocate for a minimum wage, unemployment insurance and what we now know as Social Security.  

He was an outspoken opponent of female suffrage in the early years of the 20thcentury and was relentlessly hounded for it by the suffragettes.  Then he did an about face after universal male suffrage was enacted and became an advocate for the female vote.  He was a strong proponent for making cuts to military spending and reducing taxes during his early years in Parliament but reversed himself and aggressively pushed for rearmament as Germany became a growing military threat before World War One.  He was adamantly opposed to “Bolshevism” (Communist Russia) but moved quickly to form an alliance with the Russians after they were invaded by the Germans in 1941.   For these and other inconsistencies -- including switching political parties twice (!!) during his 50-year career in Parliament -- Churchill was deeply distrusted by many of his peers, who viewed him as an erratic opportunist.  His bad reputation was a major reason why, after having served with distinction in almost every major cabinet position over the previous two decades, he was ostracized during his “wilderness years” in the 1930s.  

The underlying explanation for Churchill’s controversial, self-inflicted public persona may have been provided by Churchill himself. In his famous 1939 radio address about the Russians, he went on to say: “But perhaps the key is Russian national interest.”   In Churchill’s puzzling career, the key may have been his vision of England’s national interest – and his fearless pursuit of it.  

Churchill’s personality and modus operandi as an adult were shaped by a unique convergence of influences.  In his formative years, England was at the peak of its power and influence as the hub of a great world empire, an inspiration for any ambitious young man.  Churchill also happened to be born into one of England’s most illustrious families. (His direct ancestor, the first Duke of Marlborough, was a national war hero, and his father – who died young -- was a famous albeit controversial politician.) Churchill remained deeply conscious of his family heritage and achievements throughout his life.  He also started out in life with extraordinary gifts.  He was energetic, intensely inquisitive, and highly inventive, with a capacious mind and a photographic memory, as well as being ambitious, combative, strong willed, self-confident, and even egocentric.  He also had a remarkable sense of his own personal “destiny” – as he put it.  Yet this was also tempered by a strong idealism and sensibility that inspired him to devote himself to causes that were greater than himself.  Early on, he declared: “I shall devote myself to the preservation of this great [nation] and to trying to maintain the progress of [her] people.” 

Thus, Churchill saw himself as being independent of personal or party loyalties, or adherence to some dogmatic ideology.  He identified himself – loosely – with a liberal political stance pioneered by a famous predecessor, Benjamin Disraeli, and embraced by his own father, known as “Tory Democracy.”  It represented a kind of inclusive centrist position (Churchill long aspired to create a unifying centrist party) that combined strong support for capitalism and the existing social order with a broad agenda of social welfare policies that were seen as benefitting the nation as a whole.  It was more paternalistic than egalitarian in nature.  He was also passionate about democracy: “trust the people.” 

Indeed, Churchill’s views on social legislation were not only ahead of his time, some of them are still ahead of our time – like his proposal (in 1906!) that the state serve as a “reserve employer of labour” during hard times, and his embrace of the idea of a “national health service” in 1943.  As he put it, “healthy citizens are the greatest asset any country can have.” Likewise, he proposed that no one with talent should be denied higher education.  He even saw it as being in the national interest to nationalize England’s chaotic railroad system, as the Labour Party did for a time following World War Two. To pay for such social welfare measures, he proposed at various times the imposition of property taxes, “death duties,” and a dividends tax on the wealthy.    

Even Churchill’s perceived betrayal of the Tories and his switch to the Liberal Party in 1904 – at the time widely interpreted as a cynical move to leave a sinking ship and go with the eventual electoral winners – was in fact based on a fundamental policy difference.  The Tories were preparing to break with tradition and try to impose preferential tariffs on various imports.  The liberals were opposed.   In Churchill’s words, “I am utterly opposed to anything that will alter the Free Trade character of this country…preferential tariffs…are dangerous and objectionable…Once this policy is begun…it must lead to commercial disaster….High protective tariffs, although they may increase the profits of capital, are to the poor…a cursed engine of robbery and oppression.”  Yet Churchill’s outraged colleagues and critics focused on what he did (switching parties), not why he did it.  

It seems to be an axiom of social life – especially in the competitive arena of politics – that people tend to focus on your mistakes and undervalue your positive contributions.  Thus, Churchill was vilified for decades after the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in World War One when he was First Lord of the Admiralty. It involved a brilliant, end-around attack that very well could have broken the long, deadly stalemate on the Western Front in France and shortened the war.  In retrospect, it was doomed to failure by the incompetent planning and execution of the operation by subordinates, and the army.   But Churchill took the blame and was forced to resign in disgrace.  Over the decades, Churchill made many other mistakes as well – opposing women’s suffrage, opposing Home Rule for India, unleashing the ruthless paramilitary “Black and Tans” to suppress the Irish rebellion, reinstating the Gold Standard as Chancellor of the Exchequer, aiding the White Russians against the Communists after the Russian revolution, as well as seriously underestimating the potential military threat from Benito Mussolini in Italy and the Japanese empire in the Far East before World War Two, as well as some of his wartime appointments, tghe disastrous Norway campaign early in the war, and more. 

Churchill’s many critics over the years concede that, well, he did get one thing right when he warned about the threat of Hitler and became an impassioned advocate for British rearmament in the 1930s, and he was an inspiring leader in World War Two.  But there is a great deal more on the positive side of the ledger that is less well-known and appreciated.  In the category of “grand strategy” alone, Churchill grasped the importance of courting America early in the war and appreciated her ultimate power to tip the balance, as Hitler and the Japanese did not.  He recognized the lethal threat of the German U-boat campaign to England’s survival. (Among other things, England was at the time importing 50 percent of its food supply.)  He also recognized the military value of undertaking a campaign in Africa and Italy (Europe’s “soft underbelly”) before launching a frontal assault on French beaches, in order to divide and weaken the German defenses.  Even before the end of the war, he foresaw the threat of Soviet totalitarianism and the “Iron Curtain” and sought ways to contain it, including what became NATO. 

Churchill’s many military contributions are even less well appreciated.  He was the “father” of the tank – a game changer in both world wars.  As First Lord of the Admiralty, he initiated a naval construction program and many other measures to prepare the Grand Fleet for its vital role World War One.  He inspired and developed the convoy system as a way to counteract the U-boat menace. He established and nurtured what became the RAF, the air force that beat back the German air assault in World War Two, as well as a naval air arm and aircraft carriers.  He saw the potential of radar and initiated the construction of a network of radar stations that played a crucial role in the Battle of Britain. He established a successful code-breaking operation (Room 40) in World War One and an even more vital code-breaking effort at Bletchley Park in World War Two.  He was the one who came up with the idea of mobilizing England’s fleet of private boats to help save the more than 300,000 soldiers trapped on the beaches at Dunkirk.  He conceived the idea of what became the Mulberries, huge floating concrete structures that were used to create an artificial harbor at Normandy in support of the D-Day invasion. After learning about German efforts to build an atomic bomb, he initiated a British development program and then persuaded President Roosevelt to pursue a combined British-American program – the Manhattan Project. 

In his definitive new biography of Churchill (the latest of many), historian Andrew Roberts calls him “protean”.  Quoting an earlier biographer, he describes Churchill as a “politician, sportsman, artist, orator, historian, parliamentarian, journalist, essayist, gambler, soldier, war correspondent, adventurer, patriot, internationalist, dreamer, pragmatist, strategist, Zionist, imperialist, monarchist, democrat, egocentric, hedonist, romantic.”   He was, in short, one of a kind.  No wonder that none of our categories fit him.  And no wonder that both his admirers and his detractors can find evidence to support their views.   But nobody would dispute Roberts’ conclusion that “the battles he won saved liberty.” And saved democracy.  Now they are in jeopardy again, and we need him more than ever.    


Peter Corning

Peter Corning is currently the Director of the Institute for the Study of Complex Systems in Seattle, Washington.  He was also a one-time science writer at Newsweek and a professor for many years in the Human Biology Program at Stanford University, along with holding a research appointment in Stanford’s Behavior Genetics Laboratory.  


Comments Join The Discussion