Andrew Liddle on Cheers, Mr Churchill!

Andrew Liddle

The author of a new book on the great man talks Churchill's relationship with Scotland, his devolution plans and Dundee.
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Andrew Liddle, many congratulations on Cheers, Mr Churchill!. There are many Churchill histories out there – why did you write a new one?

Thank you. It is absolutely right to note that the field of Churchill literature is extremely wide, but there is a notable absence of material on Churchill’s near-15 years as MP for Dundee. There has only been one other dedicated book on this period of his life, which was published 40 years ago and is long out of print. Meanwhile major biographies understandably tend to brush over Churchill’s time in Scotland – if they mention it at all – as they race towards the vital role he played in British and world history in the 1940s. In this void, myths and outright falsehoods about Churchill’s time in – and attitude to – Scotland have emerged, most notably that he ordered tanks in to suppress rioting in Glasgow’s George Square in 1919. I therefore felt there was not only a gap in the historiography that could be filled, but a gap that needed to filled.

Did representing Dundee change Churchill’s political outlook?

Clementine Churchill in 1915

Churchill crossed the floor to join the Liberal Party in 1904 over the issue of free trade – and it was this issue that dominated his early years as a Liberal MP. However, it was witnessing real poverty, slums and ill-health in Dundee – after he became MP for the city in 1908 – that led him to embrace the Liberal Party’s social, as well as economic, agenda. This drew Churchill particularly close to Lloyd George and is one reason why Churchill was such an enthusiastic proponent of the so-called People’s Budget of 1909. Churchill himself also pushed forward legislation such as the Trades Boards Bill, also in 1909, which would go on to raise wages in Dundee’s dominant jute industry.

Clementine, Churchill’s wife who he was devoted to was a Scot, enthusiastically embraced life in Dundee – how important was she to WSC’s constituency work in Scotland?

Clementine played an absolutely vital role during Churchill’s time as an MP in Scotland. Her family hailed from Airlie, near Kirriemuir, about 20 miles north of Dundee, and – having spent summers there as a child – knew the city well. With this local connection – combined with a strong character and a sharp mind – Clementine was regularly called upon to campaign on Churchill’s behalf in Dundee, most notably in 1922, when she took up the campaign practically single-handedly after Churchill was struck down with appendicitis. But Clementine also played a vital role as a counsellor to Churchill with many, including their daughter Mary Soames, believing she often displayed better political judgement than her husband.

His political opponent in Dundee was Edwin Scrymgeour, who after many years, finally got the better of Winston in 1922, unseating him at the general election. What sort of man was he, and did the two get on?

Edwin Scrymgeour

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Scrymgeour is one of the most remarkable characters in British political history. His platform was a mix of prohibition, dogmatic socialism and apocalyptic evangelical Christianity – a combination that has rarely been seen before or since. Given his views, it might be expected that Churchill would have detested Scrymgeour, and they certainly never agreed politically. But Churchill actually developed a begrudging respect for the indefatigable Scrymgeour who, despite being defeated by Churchill five times (on a number of occasions humiliatingly so), kept going and eventually won. As I reveal in my book for the first time, this respect extended to Churchill lending Scrymgeour the use of his car and driver while he was on a journalistic assignment at the 1919 Paris Peace Conference.

In your introduction you write of “misinterpretations, misunderstandings and even outright falsehoods” regarding Churchill’s association with Scotland. What are the most significant of these?

The most prominent falsehood about Churchill and Scotland is that, in 1919, he ordered tanks into Glasgow’s George Square to suppress a riot that had broken out among striking workers. This is simply not true, and even a cursory review of the War Cabinet minutes from the time shows that, far from being bellicose, Churchill was actually one of the ministers most arguing for restraint. Despite this, the myth that ‘Churchill ordered tanks into George Square’ remains pervasive, even being included in school curriculums and official websites. This is just one example of the myths around Churchill and Scotland, but it is probably the most significant and well known.

Why did he reject the freedom of the city for Dundee during the war, and, with hindsight, was this a mistake?

Churchill’s rejection of the Freedom of the City of Dundee is more complex than people think. Despite taking place in 1943 – so after Churchill’s crucial role in May 1940 – Dundee councillors didn’t make the offer unanimously, instead dividing along party lines. This led Tom Johnston, a Labour MP and Churchill’s Secretary of State for Scotland, to advise Churchill to decline the offer, which he did. This is an important qualification as it shows Churchill didn’t reject the award out of hand, but only because it wasn’t made unanimously and on the advice of others. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the decision to reject the Freedom of the City of Dundee – coupled with Churchill’s failure to return to the city after his defeat in 1922- has significantly contributed to the view that he resented Dundee for voting him out.

How do you think Churchill would view devolution in its current form?

Churchill was a tremendous enthusiast for the devolution of power, arguing for it as early as 1901, and I therefore think he would be broadly supportive of the arrangement we have now. In 1911, he presented a plan to the cabinet that would have created national parliaments in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, as well as regional assemblies across England, all with power over areas such as education, infrastructure and housing. Indeed, Churchill’s proposal of 1911 went further than the devolution settlement that was eventually reached under New Labour almost 100 years later and, in 1913, he even argued for a federal UK – so if anything I think he might have hoped we would have more devolution today, rather than less.

Churchill’s proposal of 1911 went further than the devolution settlement that was eventually reached under New Labour almost 100 years later

What was Churchill’s single most important contribution to Scotland?

It would be easy here to point to the events of 1940, but looking at the period of my book, roughly 1908-1922, I think it has to be his pursuit of social and economic progress, particularly his involvement in the People’s Budget. This important measure helped lay the foundations for the welfare state and helped improve the lives of his constituents. Other legislation brought forward by Churchill in this period, such as the Trade Boards Bill and the Labour Exchanges Bill, raised wages and helped the unemployed find work, making a valuable contribution to people’s lives in Scotland and across the UK.

What is the view of Churchill in Scotland today?

Churchill’s reputation in Scotland today has undoubtedly been impacted by contemporary politics. The man voted the greatest Briton by BBC viewers in 2002 is constantly held up by pro and anti-Scottish independence activists to support their cause. As a result, what Churchill actually thought of Scotland – and what Scotland actually thought of Churchill – gets lost in a blizzard of misinformation and manipulation. It is my hope that my book can cut through some of this contemporary noise and help people to better understand the facts and realities of Churchill’s relationship with Scotland.

Andrew Liddle is the author of Cheers, Mr Churchill! Winston in Scotland.