Scotland had a profound impact on Winston Churchill – practically, politically and personally. Practically, it provided the young Liberal politician with a constituency for almost 15 years, five election victories and a platform from which he could launch his cabinet career. Crucially, the voters of Dundee backed Churchill during some of his most difficult moments. Without victory in Dundee in 1908, Churchill’s political career would have been in serious jeopardy. Equally when voters in Dundee chose to endorse Churchill in a by-election in 1917 following his reascension to the cabinet, they helped cast off the aspersion that he was a political liability in the wake of the failure of the Dardanelles campaign in 1915. These were two crucial endorsements, but the strength of his support was clearly apparent at every election he contested in Dundee until 1922. Even then, as the city voted him out, he received more than 20,000 votes.
Politically, and perhaps most importantly, serving in Scotland changed Churchill’s burgeoning Liberal perspective from one concerned solely with economics to one that also embraced progressive social reform. Churchill had left the Conservative Party for the Liberal Party in 1904 because of his belief in free trade, and his alignment with the Liberal Party until 1908 was fundamentally due to economic policy. It was only once he became MP for Dundee – and came to more fully understand poverty, slums and ill health in the town known as Juteopolis – that his political priorities evolved and he became a champion of social, as well as economic, progress. Equally, serving in Scotland helped develop Churchill’s long-held support for Irish Home Rule into a more comprehensive support for the devolution of power across the United Kingdom. As Cheers, Mr Churchill! reveals fully for the first time, in 1911 Churchill proposed establishing or re-establishing parliaments in Scotland, Ireland and Wales – as well as creating 10 regional assemblies across England – with power over areas such as education, policing, housing and roads. This proposal reflected Churchill’s belief, as he articulated during a speech in Dundee in 1913, that a federal United Kingdom was inevitable.
Personally, and most prosaically, Scotland also had a profound social and private influence on Churchill’s life. His wife, Clementine, hailed from Airlie, less then 20 miles north of Dundee, and Churchill retained many lifelong friends in the city and wider Scotland. He would describe the chair of the Dundee Liberal Association, Sir George Ritchie, as “one of the best friends I ever had”. Churchill even enjoyed amiable relations with his great rival in Dundee, the leader of the Scottish Prohibition Party, Edwin Scrymgeour, who would finally defeat him – at his sixth attempt – in 1922, becoming in the process the only prohibitionist every elected to the House of Commons. As Cheers, Mr Churchill! reveals for the first time, Churchill went so far as to host the teetotal Scrymgeour at the luxurious Hotel Majestic during Paris Peace Conference in 1919, even offering him the use of his car and driver. Perhaps most importantly, it was a Scottish regiment that helped Churchill recover when, following the Dardanelles debacle and his ensuing resignation, his career was at its lowest ebb to date. With his mental health under strain, Churchill took command of the 6th Battalion, Royal Scots Fusiliers, and it was in the trenches, among the Scottish accents and Glengarries, that he began his recovery. As one of the officers serving under Churchill, future Scottish National Party leader Andrew Dewar Gibb, would later note: “I am firmly convinced no more popular officer ever commanded troops.”
Despite the significance of Scotland in Churchill’s political life – both as a Dundee MP for almost 15 years, and later as Prime Minister – it is a subject that is curiously missing from the vast mass of work on his life. Only one full-length book on the topic, published 40 years ago, has ever been attempted before. At the same time, given the scale and scope of Churchill’s life – and particularly his impact on British, European and world history in 1940 – it is understandably a topic that features only fleetingly in most major biographies.
Yet to omit Scotland from Churchill’s story – and Churchill from Scotland’s story – is a grave mistake. In the absence of fact, fake history has flourished – most notably the falsehood that he ordered tanks in to suppress rioting in Glasgow’s George Square in 1919 – as has a general perception that Scotland hated Churchill or Churchill hated Scotland. As Cheers, Mr Churchill! Winston in Scotland shows, neither narrative is true and, in fact, by returning to the original sources, we can see that Scotland had a profound and underappreciated impact on Churchill’s remarkable political career.
Andrew Liddle is the author of Cheers, Mr Churchill! Winston in Scotland, published by Birlinn.
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