Churchill was now in the House of Commons. But what for? Personal advancement, certainly. He thirsted for office, power, and the chance to make history. Personal vindication, too: to avenge his father’s failure by becoming prime minister himself. But were there not higher motives? Did not altruistic elements coexist with his ambition, vanity, and lust for success? Did he have a political philosophy? A book has been written on the subject but leaves one little wiser. Churchill, then and always, was a mass of contradictions.
Churchill’s experiences as a young warrior confirmed and intensified his imperialism. The empire was a splendid thing: enormous, world-embracing, seemingly all-powerful, certainly gorgeously colorful, exciting, offering dazzling opportunities for the progress and fulfillment of all races, provided the white elite who ran it kept their nerve and self-confidence. Churchill never lacked either and was anxious to display them in ruling an empire whose outward show stood for everything he loved and enjoyed. He also had certain gut instincts which fitted in well at a time when the great-power “scramble for Africa” was at its height. From the Sudan in 1899 he wrote to his mother: “I have a keen aboriginal desire to kill some of these odious dervishes . . . I anticipate enjoying the exercise very much.”
At the same time Churchill had a warm and tender heart and a perceptive insight into the darker side of power. He saw the horror of empire as well as its splendor. He loved to be top dog. But he felt for the underdog. The River War, for instance, was an accurate and unflinching account of what he saw. He told his cousin Ivor Guest: “I do not think the book will bring me many friends, [but] in writing the great thing is to be honest.” It angered Kitchener and many others, another item in the growing dossier of “Churchill’s unreliability.” The official reports after Omdurman said the wounded Dervishes “received every attention.” In fact, he told his mother, their treatment was disgraceful and most were just slaughtered. Kitchener, he told her, was “a vulgar, common man—without much of the non-brutal elements in his composition.” This was toned down in the book. Even so, he dealt with the question of the wounded Dervishes honestly, and he added: “The stern and un-pitying spirit of the commander was communicated to his troops.” In a sense, he disapproved of the whole expedition insofar as it was a gigantic reprisal for the murder of Gordon. He wrote: “It may be that the gods forbad vengeance to man because they reserved for themselves so intoxicating a drink. But the cup should not be drained to the bottom. The dregs are often filthy tasting.”
It would be untrue to say that Churchill, as a young politician and junior minister at the Colonial Office, kept an eagle eye open for the blemishes of empire. But when they attracted his attention he spoke out. He expressed his concern for the six hundred Tibetans killed by the machine guns of the Younghusband expedition to Lhasa, and for the twenty-five Zulu rebels deported to Saint Helena and who, he said, were starving there. He was quick to speak out for the Boers in giving a generous peace and reconciliation. In his maiden speech in the Commons, made immediately after taking the oath, his opening words were: “If I were a Boer, I hope I should be fighting in the field.” This was not the least courageous of the five hundred major speeches he was to make in the Commons over the next sixty years. Nor did his eagerness to see war, and the relish he took in it and in medal collecting, blind him to its inescapable horrors, or prevent him from taking every opportunity to warn fellow MPs about its nature. In another speech in his first year in Parliament, he said that colonial wars were beastly, marked by atrocities and senseless slaughters. But a European war would be infinitely worse. He was “alarmed,” he said, by the “composure,” even “glibness,” with which MPs and, worse, ministers talked of a possible European war: “A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle, which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentration, to one end, of every vital energy in the community.” He added: “Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than the wars of kings.” These prophetic words were spoken more than a dozen years before the catastrophe occurred in 1914. Churchill was never a warmonger as his enemies claimed. On the contrary: he warned against it just as urgently as he warned against unpreparedness for it—the two were indivisible. But Churchill was sufficient of a realist to grasp that wars will come, and that a victorious one, however dreadful, is preferable to a lost one.
In a broader sense, it is not easy to classify Churchill. He had a historian’s mind, eager to grapple with facts, actualities, to answer the who, how, where, when questions, rather than a philosopher’s, mesmerized by abstractions with their whys and wherefores. He was born a Tory and entered Parliament as one. But he was unhappy on the Tories’ benches. Salisbury, the man who had destroyed his father, ceased to be leader in 1902 but, on retiring, handed over to his nephew, A. J. Balfour, cool, aloof, calculating rather than impulsive. Now, he had a philosopher’s mind, and Churchill found it uncongenial, although they moved in similar circles and remained nominally friends until Balfour’s death in 1930. Churchill had no desire to serve under him. Moreover, Balfour had got himself and his party into a muddle over free trade; Joe Chamberlain, having split the old Liberal Party over Ireland in 1886, now split the Tories over his plan to reimpose protective tariffs. Churchill’s constituency, Oldham, was a free trade town and he was, too, both by interest and by choice. Moreover, it was really a Liberal seat which he had won by a fluke in the “khaki” landslide of 1900, and he was more likely to hold it as a Liberal. The Tories had been predominant for twenty years but the wind of change was now blowing and the young man, sniffing it, wanted it to fill his sails. So he “crossed over” in 1904 and fought and won Oldham as a Liberal in the 1906 election, which returned a huge Liberal majority. This caused fury among the right-thinking, and they added a hefty item to Churchill’s dossier of unreliability.
He was not a party man. That was the truth. His loyalty belonged to the national interest, and his own. At one time or another he stood for Parliament under six labels: Conservative, Liberal, Coalition, Constitutionalist, Unionist, and National Conservative. This was partly due to his failure to find a safe seat, or one he could hold. For his first quarter century in the Commons he moved between Oldham (1900-1906), North-West Manchester (1906-8), and Dundee, which he scrambled into in 1908 and finally lost in 1922, being then outside the Commons for over a year. This dictated his return to the Conservatives. He said: “Anyone can rat. It takes real skill to re-rat.” His reward was that he at last got a safe seat he could hold in all seasons, Epping in Essex (later called Wood-ford), which he retained for thirty-five years, once as a Constitutionalist, twice as a Unionist, once as a National Conservative, and five times as a simple Conservative, usually with enormous majorities. This safe seat, near London, was of enormous benefit to his career. He never had to worry about it.
All the same, if Churchill was ever anything, he was a Liberal (as well as a traditionalist and a small-c conservative). There is a curious story about this, told to me by the Labour MP “Curly” Mallalieu in 1962, when Churchill was in his eighties, though still an MP. There is, or was, a curious contraption called the “House of Lords Lift” in which peers were elevated to the upper floor of Parliament, mere MPs being allowed to use it only if injured or decrepit. Churchill had permanent permission, and Curly had hurt himself playing football. One day when he got in he found Churchill there. The old man glared and said: “Who are you? ” “I’m Bill Mallalieu, sir, MP for Huddersfield.” “What party?” “Labour, sir.” “Ah. I’m a Liberal. Always have been.” The fiendish glee with which he made this remark was memorable.
Churchill’s courage in crossing the floor made him a marked man, and it was no surprise when the prime minister, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, made him undersecretary to the colonies in 1905. He was only thirty-one, and the office was important, for his boss, Lord Elgin, was in the Lords, and Churchill had to do all the Commons business covering the entire world himself, and stand up to the Tory heavyweights, including Joe Chamberlain, the first to make the colonies a fashionable, key job, the road to the top. But standing up to this opposition from the front bench was precisely what Churchill was good at, then and always. He was fluent, resourceful, witty, and always well briefed. He enjoyed himself on his feet and did his best to interest, even enthrall, and always to entertain the House with his sallies and jokes, his moments of indignation, real or simulated, his obvious love of words and the relish with which he brought them out, not least his huge pleasure in the rituals of the Commons and his reverence for its traditions. Members always love those who love the House, and Churchill plainly did.
He also loved his job, with its telegrams, king’s messengers in uniform, red leather dispatch boxes, and important visitors, black, yellow, and white, from all over the world. He was certainly conspicuous. His name came up in a conversation between Rudyard Kipling, the Orpheus of the empire, and one of its greatest builders, Cecil Rhodes—how one wishes a transcript had survived. Churchill paid an official visit to the East African colonies in 1907, traveling with his devoted secretary “Eddie” Marsh, a fixture in his official life for the next twenty-five years. Going up from the coast to the Ugandan plateau by the new railway, Churchill described it as “like travelling up the beanstalk into fairyland.” He made the most of the trip uphill by standing on the cowcatcher of the engine as it puffed its way through the jungle, a typical Churchill touch of vainglory which duly made its way into the newspapers and caused tut-tut-ting. In Uganda and Kenya he went on safari with Marsh and 350 porters. In India he had stuck wild pig but could not afford big game. Now he shot rhino, zebra, wildebeest, and gazelle, sending his trophies back to London to be stuffed and mounted by the leading taxidermist, Rowland Ward of Piccadilly. Oddly enough, through a characteristic piece of Churchillian expediency, to avoid criticism of misuse of public funds the trip had been paid for by the Strand Magazine, and in return he wrote articles which, extended to book form, became My African Journey. Like so many of his activities, this combination of office with journalism would be impossible now. Indeed, it raised eyebrows at the time.
Churchill had become a Privy Counsellor that year; and the next, when H. H. Asquith succeeded “C-B” as prime minister, he was brought into the cabinet. Going to the Colonial Office had been Churchill’s idea. He had originally been offered the plum job of financial secretary to the treasury, but he had preferred to work off his global ideas for the colonies (his book is full of schemes for industrializing Africa and harnessing the Nile). Now, however, he wanted to get his teeth into home politics and eagerly accepted Asquith’s invitation to succeed Lloyd George, who was promoted to chancellor of the exchequer, as president of the Board of Trade. It was dazzling to reach cabinet rank when only thirty-four, and the post also brought the opportunity to work with LG, with whom he forged a precarious friendship and a more solid policy alliance to bring about an English version of the “welfare state” Bismarck had introduced in Germany.
Churchill realized he was about to embark on his first major adventure in politics, and he wanted to put his private life in order. He had already (January 2, 1906) paid his debt to his family by publishing his magnificent Lord Randolph Churchill. As his cousin Ivor Guest put it, “Few fathers had done less for their sons. Few sons have done more for their fathers.” Now he wanted a family of his own. An eligible bachelor, he had dutifully fallen in love with various girls, or thought he had, and waltzed around Mayfair ballrooms. But he made little effort to dance in step: not his line. “I trod on the Prince of Wales’s toe,” he recorded complacently, “and heard him yelp.” In August 1908 he proposed to Clementine Hozier, daughter of the late Colonel Sir Henry Hozier, secretary of Lloyd’s. Other girls had set their caps at him, including Asquith’s daughter Violet, and some of them had substantial dots. But Clemmie suited him, and he loved her. He always put happiness before money. Anyway, he never had any doubt he could earn anything required. As he laid down, “Income should be expanded to meet expenditure.” They were quickly married, at St. Margaret’s, Westminster, Parliament’s parish church, in September, and the event was not allowed to crowd out political activities. His best man was the fiercest of England’s political tribe, Lord Hugh Cecil, head of the Tory “ultra” pressure group known as the Hughligans, and in the vestry, while the registers were being signed, Churchill had time to have a plotting whisper with LG. He used the honeymoon to complete and dispatch to the printers his African book.
Among all the twentieth-century ruling elites, the Churchills must be judged to have had the most successful marriage. It can be said with reasonable certitude that each was totally faithful to the other. She devoted herself completely to her remarkable husband, gave him much good (usually liberal) advice, which was not always taken, comforted him in his many career mishaps, and calmed him down when he was triumphant. “He always insists I am by him,” she said, “and then promptly forgets my existence.” True, but he never looked at another woman. They had one son, Randolph, and four daughters, Diana, Sarah, Marigold (who died in infancy), and Mary.
The marital fidelity of the Churchills was a remarkable fact, for the way the Commons works tends to erode vows on both sides. Then, too, both parties had promiscuous mothers. Lady Blanche Hozier, daughter of the Earl of Airlie, had many lovers while her husband was still alive, nine at one time, it was said. Clemmie was not Hozier’s daughter but there is no certainty who her father was. The most likely candidate was a flirtatious cavalry officer, “Bay” Middleton, but another possibility was Bertram Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale, Nancy Mitford’s grandfather. If so, it is curious to think that Mrs. Churchill was her aunt. Jennie Churchill also had a number of lovers while Lord Randolph was still alive, and they may even have included Middleton. After Lord Randolph’s death she had more, and then made two marriages to younger men, before having one of her falls, through wearing ultrahigh heels, which led to mortification, amputation of her leg, and death (in 1921). There is no doubt Churchill was the son of Lord Randolph. But it is a remarkable fact that the children of such persistent adulteresses should have made such a faithful couple. Given Churchill’s adventurous and reckless nature, and his appetite for sensation, his fidelity is notable. It may be that he put all his energy into his political life. Certainly, the marriage was spared many of the irritating rubs of close proximity, for Churchill’s hours—up late arguing with colleagues, rising at lunchtime after working in bed—meant that they led separate existences under the same roof: they each had their own bedroom, right from the start. Whatever the reason, fidelity was a godsend and an important contributing factor to Churchill’s success, for he was saved all the worry and emotional storm which adultery provokes.
Churchill delighted in his marriage. He was a happy man. Against this background, the years from 1908 proved the most fruitful of his life in terms of the legislation, on the whole highly successful, which he pushed through Parliament. These had the overriding aim of helping the poor, the unemployed, and the lower-paid working class. They included the Trade Boards Act (1909), ending “sweated labour”; the establishment of labor exchanges, to enable employees to fill jobs more quickly; the first National Insurance Act (1911), to provide unemployment pay; allowances for children to set against income tax; the Mines Act (1911), which transformed conditions in the chronically unhappy coal trade; and the Shops Act, which eventually helped shop assistants by requiring a tea break and imposing early closing. For the first time millions of lower-paid workers got a weekly half holiday. Churchill supervised every detail of this extremely complex program, defending it clause by clause in the Commons. He was impelled by a genuine passion for the least fortunate members of society, by a strong belief that society could be made both humane and more efficient, and by his feeling that revolution, of which there were rumblings all over the world at this time, could only be averted by judicious reforms. Other countries were introducing changes, but for a comparable achievement one has to look to the domestic program of Woodrow Wilson in the United States. Churchill’s reforms were not his work alone. For the first time he demonstrated his wonderful ability to galvanize civil servants into furious activity and dramatic innovations, and his equal skill in bringing to Whitehall brilliant outsiders, such as William Beveridge, who ran the new labor exchanges and who was later to produce the famous Beveridge Report (1943), the plan on which Britain’s welfare state was completed.
Of course, the political giant behind the reforms was the chancellor of the exchequer, Lloyd George, who provided the money. The introduction of old-age pensions in particular—which struck people at the time as the most sensational of the novelties—was his achievement. But Churchill supported him passionately, having the case of Mrs. Everest in his mind: he was always most strongly motivated by personal experience and individual cases. The two worked together to bring the great fleet of measures into harbor, wafted by the winds of their oratory. As speakers they were very different. Churchill had always prepared his set speeches carefully but not word for word. In 1904, however, he had the horrible experience of “drying up” in the Commons, when apparently in full flow. Thereafter he learned everything by heart, rehearsed and timed himself, and left nothing to chance. The Commons was, as a rule, a rapt audience. Lloyd George was an inspirational leader on the Welsh preacher model. He thought and spoke on his feet, and expected the House to interrupt, to participate, and so to inspire sallies, jokes, splashes of venom, and apothegms. He created dramatic pauses and raised hubbubs. So his speaking rate was slower measured in words delivered per minute—85 to Churchill’s 111, with Gladstone’s 100 as the standard. But the excitement of a Lloyd George speech was intense: you did not know what he would say, and often it came as a surprise, even to the speaker. Later in his life Churchill had to compete for the title of best Commons orator with another Welshman, Aneurin Bevan, who like LG often thought on his feet and was capable of devastating impromptus, especially to interrupters. When I heard both men in the 1950s, I rated Bevan more highly; and Sir Robert Boothby, who was Churchill’s parliamentary private secretary in the twenties, close to Lloyd George, and a friend and drinking companion of Bevan’s, told me that LG was the best of the three at actually moving the House and changing opinions. However, Churchill’s method was right for him and proved invaluable when, in due course, he addressed vast audiences, worldwide, in solemn settings. Moreover, while LG’s speeches do not read particularly well (nor do Bevan’s), Churchill’s orations, in print, usually carry all the resonance of his voice with them: they are magnificent prose, too.
If Churchill and LG carried through a peaceful revolution together, they were not equals. To LG, the radical by birth, upbringing, race, emotional instinct, and voracious appetite for change, to thrust down the mighty from their seats and exalt the poor was his religion and his delight. Both he and Churchill opposed the over-ambitious race with Germany to build the most battleships. But only LG could, and did, say, “Dukes are more expensive than Dreadnoughts, and often more dangerous! ”
Churchill was carried forward by intellectual conviction, but his reverence for tradition acted as a brake, and LG delighted in taunting him about his burden of “strawberry leaves and Blenheim.” Inverting the usual hierarchy, he had a superior social position to Churchill, which reinforced his seniority in years, parliamentary experience, and honed political skills. So he was by far the senior partner. Churchill saw it in even more ignominious terms, especially in retrospect. In the mid-1920s, when Churchill was riding high as chancellor of the exchequer, and LG was out of office, for good as it turned out, Boothby sought to heal the breach between the two men—they had scarcely spoken since LG’s government broke up in 1922—by bringing the Welshman to Churchill’s private room at the Commons for a private chat. After LG slipped away, Boothby went in and found Churchill slumped in somber thought. “Well, how did it go?” “Oh, very well. Within five minutes we were right back in our old relationship.” “What was that?” “Master and servant.”
At the time Churchill was too busy and excited to worry about his subservience, for his horizons continued to expand. In 1910 he was promoted to home secretary. This gave added weight to his role in the reform program but also allowed him to take direct action. All his life he refused to be bound to a desk. He insisted on seeing for himself. His imprisonment by the Boers had given him a horror of confinement, so he visited prisons, conferred with wardens, talked to prisoners alone—probably the first home secretary to do so—and introduced administrative changes, such as regular supplies of books and entertainment. He began the process whereby the incarceration of children was ended. His approach aroused irritation among the possessing classes. Among his duties as home secretary was to send a daily written report to the king when Parliament was sitting. Edward VII had always enjoyed Churchill’s jokes and often irreverent approach to politics. George V, who succeeded him in 1910, was less sure of himself, had a much cruder sense of humor, and never could quite see the point of Churchill. His racy letters often appeared improper to the new king. In November 1911 the home secretary wrote that his office was considering labor colonies to deal with “tramps and wastrels.” He added: “It must not, however, be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.” This produced an explosion of anger in the king, who accused the author of “very socialistic views.” But Churchill, who was never content to be silent or inactive when the opportunity to say or do something interesting presented itself, got into trouble with the Socialists and their trade union allies, too. A miners’ strike at Tonypandy in the Rhondda Valley of South Wales threatened to be beyond the powers of the local police to control. Churchill ordered troops to the area as a deterrent. This was a bold thing to do, bound to arouse resentment among both militant trade unionists and Tory armchair critics who disliked Churchillian “theatricals” as they called them—two excellent reasons, in his view, why he should do it. In fact it succeeded. The police were able to disperse the miners by using their rolled-up mackintoshes—they did not even need to draw their truncheons. The general on the spot, Neville Macready, testified: “It was entirely due to Mr. Churchill’s forethought that bloodshed was avoided.” But the accusation was made and persisted—it still does among trade unionists—that Churchill ordered the army to fire on the miners. “Remember Tonypandy” was a bitter hustings cry used against Churchill at every election thereafter.
A more sensational episode followed. The British were used to Irish “outrages” but in the years before the wars they had to put up with a new menace, international terrorists termed anarchists. The phenomenon is well treated in Conrad’s novel Under Western Eyes. Among those ranked as anarchists were a gang of Latvian immi grants under a man called Peter the Painter. They had already killed three policemen while tunneling into a jeweler’s shop, and in January 1911 they were holed up in a house in Sidney Street in London’s East End. Churchill was advised to send a party of Scots Guards from the Tower of London to help the police. He was delighted to agree, and went also in person to see the “siege,” dragging with him Eddie Marsh, the poetry lover and art collector out of office hours, who was terrified. Photographers were present and the newspapers showed the home secretary, apparently directing police and soldiers, wearing a top hat and a beautiful coat with fur lining and astrakhan collar. When a fire broke out in the besieged house he certainly gave orders to the fire brigade: “Let it burn.” Two charred bodies were later found in the ruins. Balfour, who never did anything active if he could help it (except to play golf), asked maliciously in the Commons, “I understand what the photographer was doing. But what was the Right Honourable Gentleman doing?” This episode became another weighty item in the anti-Churchill dossier, and the photo of Churchill at the siege was reproduced thousands of times, and still is. Hard to see, today, what he did wrong. A minister with direct experience of how violent crime is handled is of more use than one who merely reads reports. Besides, Churchill enjoyed it: he assured his colleague Charles Masterman, “It was such fun.” When a fuss was made about corporal punishment of criminals, and various specially designed rods and birches were produced, Churchill and Eddie Marsh flogged themselves with them in the home secretary’s office. That was fun, too. As such it was in contrast to his general experience as home secretary, which he found grim: “Of all the offices I have held,” he told a newspaper in the midthirties, “this was the one I liked least.” He particularly disliked exercising the power of the home secretary to confirm death sentences or commute them to life imprisonment. Of the forty-three cases that came before him, he commuted twenty-one. Churchill was never a supporter of abolition of capital punishment. He thought long incarceration much more horrible. But the night before a hanging he brooded on the condemned man’s fate: it was one of the very few worries which ever robbed him of his sleep.
All the same, Churchill later admitted that he relished the years before the First World War more than any other period of his career. We tend to think of them as a halcyon age of peace, prosperity, and pleasure, the last in English history. In fact it was an age of turbulence, and that is one reason Churchill enjoyed it so much. It was not the world war which ended the ancien régime but the years before it: the war was merely one of the symptoms of the change. There is a remarkable book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, in which George Dangerfield presents the epoch in this light, a time of frenzy, extremism, and incipient violence, banishing the old Liberal slogan of “Peace, Prosperity and Reform,” and with it all tranquillity in public life. The unions were active as never before, taking full advantage of their virtual immunity to actions for damages caused by strikes, which the Liberals had unwisely conferred on them in 1906. The suffragettes were turning from protest to direct action, were being brutally arrested, sent to prison, and forcibly fed when they resorted to hunger strikes. In 1909, to pay for the welfare state, Lloyd George introduced a budget which taxed land values, so hitting hard the aristocracy, and increased taxation generally. Breaking a long tradition under which the House of Lords automatically passed finance bills agreed by the Commons, the Lords rejected it, the Tories using their overwhelming built-in majority there. Asquith had either to withdraw or tone down the budget, to create peers to enable it to be passed—which King George initially declined to do—or to go to the country. But two elections in 1910 failed to decide the matter, though they robbed the Liberals of their huge majority over all parties, forcing Asquith to rely on Irish support in order to go on governing. That in turn forced him to buy the Irish MPs by giving them a Home Rule bill, which further angered the Tories and their Ulster Protestant allies, who threatened violence and began to arm themselves.
Churchill, by nature an activist and a partisan, if not exactly belligerent, was in the thick of all those struggles. Trade unionists now hated him. Suffragettes, who made him a particular target, tried to break up his meetings and occasionally assaulted him. He was made the victim of a rare physical assault in the Commons. On November 13, 1912, during an Ulster debate, the ultra-Tories shouted “Rats!” to him and Colonel Seely, sitting on the front bench. Churchill characteristically responded by waving a handkerchief, a gesture of irony interpreted as provocation, and Ronald McNeill, an Ulster MP, responded in turn by seizing the Speaker’s leather-bound copy of Standing Orders, hurling it in a vast parabola through the tense air, and striking Churchill on the head. He responded by quoting Hazlitt: “I do not mind a physical blow. It is hostile ideas which hurt me.” Later he insisted on fulfilling a speaking engagement in Belfast’s Unionist Hall, despite threats to his life. This was one of many instances at the time which testify to his lack of physical fear. In this sense there has never been a more courageous politician. He courted danger, given the chance.
Not that Churchill enjoyed divisions in society—quite the contrary. He found the center attractive. He and Lloyd George discussed the possibility of a new party of all talents. In his case it was made more attractive by his friendship with the Tory MP F. E. Smith. Son of a former mayor of Birkenhead and prizewinning lawyer from Wadham College, Oxford, “F. E.,” as he was known, had made in February 1906 what is rated the greatest of all maiden speeches and had almost immediately taken a prominent place on the Conservative front bench. He and Churchill soon became fast friends. Smith made a tremendous income at the bar and helped Churchill in a libel action. He was witty, abrasive, profane, a great hater and enthusiast, the only person Churchill admitted had a finer brain than himself. They argued, drank, and joked together into the night, and Clemmie believed he was the worst possible influence on her husband, more even than Lloyd George, who at any rate had the (to her) merit of going to bed at nine if he could. Smith was the only friend with whom Churchill watched his words, for he feared that Smith, who was the master of insults, might if they quar reled use expressions which would end their friendship forever. To Clemmie’s horror he was asked to be Randolph’s godfather, and agreed. Churchill thought him a natural for a center party of brilliant individuals. This friendship continued, even intensified, over the budget crisis, the House of Lords crisis, and the Ulster crisis. The only thing they agreed about was denying votes to women, for Smith, who adored them—“he spared no man with his wit, and all women”—and would not allow his daughters to go to boarding school or university, thought participation in public life would destroy femininity. The two men were famous for laughing loud and long together. Unable to dominate as they wished the old-style Literary Club, or “the Club,” originally founded by Dr. Johnson, they created a rival, “the Other Club,” which they stocked with their friends, and which became even more famous for scintillating talk and vitality, if not for wisdom. It was a bridge between two hostile worlds, as Tories shut their doors in Liberal faces. It was one of the rare times in English history when members of the two parties did not meet at dinner or in ballrooms. New York and Paris were used to bitter political schisms, but London had always put social relations before party, and the bitterness was painful as well as novel. Smith joked: “We have got the best of the bargain. We are sought out by duchesses. Countesses give dinner parties for us. What do you Liberals get? The Society of Knights’ Ladies.”
Actually there is no evidence Churchill was ever excluded by the Mayfair hostesses as a result of his views, or for any other reason. They were delighted to have him, then as always. In any case he had resources of his own. He and Clemmie had always contrived to be “well-mounted,” a horsey term which he used to signify “able to maintain a comfortable existence in society.” As he once put it: “All my life, I have earned my own living, so that I have always had a bottle of champagne for myself and another for a friend.” In 1911 Asquith, hearing the rumbles of war grow louder, transferred Churchill to the Admiralty. As first lord, he became “tenant of the grandest tied cottage in Whitehall,” as he put it. At Admiralty House his retinue of indoor servants expanded from seven to twelve, and Clemmie was able to preside over sumptuous dinner parties and receptions. Nor was this all. He had the use of the Admiralty yacht, the Enchantress, at four thousand tons one of the largest afloat, with a crew of 196. He delighted in this splendid vessel: “It was the finest toy I ever had in my life.” Luxury yachting under blue skies was the greatest pleasure of the prewar ruling class. He provided it in regular spring and summer cruises on the grand scale for his social and political friends, from the Asquiths down. There are rapturous accounts of these occasions. There was nothing frivolous about them, however. The Royal Navy was the most complex and widely spread fighting machine on earth. It was “the Senior Service,” dogmatically proud of its ways and determined not to change them. The senior admirals regarded Churchill with horror. Junior officers, petty officers, and ratings saw him as a hero, especially after he improved their pay and conditions. There were many hundreds of naval establishments and bases in the British Isles and the Mediterranean alone. Thanks to Enchantress, Churchill visited every one of them, spending eighteen months on board her during his three peacetime years as first lord. He looked into everything and everyone. He often worked eighteen hours a day, and absorbed the new technology of naval warfare with impressive speed. It was exactly the kind of existence he loved. Against frenzied opposition he created a naval staff. He began the historic switch from coal to oil, and in the process laid down a new class, the Queen Elizabeth, of huge, oil-burning battleships. He created the naval air service, and begged his ship architects to design him aircraft carriers. He learned to fly himself and did so, with reckless delight, as often as he could, until Clemmie, on her knees, persuaded him to give it up. He recognized no limitations to his activities and took the government, and Britain, into the oil industry by investing in Persia and creating the great Anglo-Persian Oil Company (now BP). This proved to be, over the decades, an even better investment than Disraeli’s purchase of the Suez Canal.
Surveying the world scene from his coign of vantage at the Admiralty, now, thanks to his efforts, in direct wireless communication with every part of the world, Churchill sensed that Britain was heading for a war with Germany. While still home secretary he judged it his duty, as the minister responsible for international security, to attend German army maneuvers. The kaiser, who was part English and spoke the language fluently, made a fuss of him and Churchill got to know him quite well, insofar as anyone did. For the kaiser, as Churchill made clear in an essay in Great Contemporaries (1937), was an enigma and a mass of contradictions. It was unclear whether he was a puppet or an autocrat. What was undeniable, as Churchill saw for himself, was that Germany possessed the best professional army in the world. He attended French maneuvers, too, and, despite his lifelong Francophilia, he could see there was no comparison. Moreover, Germany was now easily the largest industrial power in Europe and, with a large and rapidly growing population, capable of expanding her war machine dramatically. On his return from German maneuvers, Churchill said, “I can only thank God that there is a sea between England and Germany.”
The sea was defended by the Royal Navy, the largest in the world, though no longer up to the “two-power standard,” able to take on and defeat the two next largest navies in the world. That raised the question: why were the Germans, with an army capable of domination of all Europe, determined to match, or at least challenge, Britain at sea? Their navy could only be aimed at Britain and the global command of the sea. The Germans began building their High Seas Fleet, as they called it, in the late 1880s, and continued to increase the rate of ship construction, especially of armored, big-gun battleships, over the next twenty years. It was this plainly anti-British construction program which turned public opinion, hitherto pro-German, if anything, against what were now referred to as “the Huns.” (Churchill preferred the French term of abuse, boche.) When Churchill took over the Admiralty, the policy was then to maintain a 60 percent superiority over Germany in modern battleships. But this was upset by the German Naval Law of 1912 which increased their battleship construction rate by half again. Churchill responded with the Queen Elizabeth class, the largest warships ever made at 27,500 tons and eight fifteen-inch guns each, oil burning and able to maintain high speeds. A disgusted Lloyd George complained that Churchill had lost all interest in social reform “and now talks about nothing but boilers.”
Churchill was also concerned by the German decision to build large numbers of U-boats (as they called them). What were they for? The answer was unmistakable. Britain had the largest merchant navy in the world and imported a greater percentage of her food than any other great power. The German U-boat was a potential war-winning weapon which could starve Britain to death. Churchill began to hate the U-boat passionately, and near the end of his life he declared that in both world wars the submarine threat had worried him more than any other. The only answer was to build large numbers of U-boat destroyers, or destroyers for short, very fast and equipped with a new weapon, the depth charge. This he did. But at every step in his policies, he was opposed by elderly admirals, of whom there were a large number occupying key positions. He spent as much time battling with them as he did at the actual work of modernizing the navy.
It says a lot for Churchill’s overwhelming energy that while performing all his myriad tasks at the Admiralty and the naval bases, he did many other things, too. He stood by Lloyd George in his many troubles—accusations of corruption over Marconi shares, and of fornication and adultery—and backed Asquith to the hilt over Home Rule. There was much gunrunning among both Protestants and Catholics and threats by Ulster Protestant army officers, many of whom held senior posts, to resign their commissions rather than participate in coercing Ulster to accept Home Rule. He made two hazardous visits to Ulster, on one taking Clemmie, to put the government’s case, and he was prepared to use force to ensure that Ulster abide by the Home Rule compromise. It is worth noting that in the years 1911-14, Churchill felt bound to pursue policies which antagonized most of the senior admirals and many of the senior generals. This helps to explain his troubles during the war. Indeed, though he was not at all an extremist, his actions often looked extreme. His nature was such that, once a policy was finally determined in the cabinet, he pushed it with enthusiasm bordering on recklessness. Ulster was determined to fight, as his father had said. He himself now believed that London should fight, and would be right—though he never actually said it. But in a speech at Bradford on March 14, 1914, he said that it was time to “go forward together and put these grave matters to the proof.” He ordered the Third Battle Squadron to be within an hour’s sailing from Belfast, to show that the legitimate government was serious about using force. Fortunately Asquith quickly canceled the order. But it was known, and bitterly resented, that Churchill was the foremost in the cabinet in his willingness to coerce Ulstermen, whose greatest pride was that they were “loyalists” and stuck by the empire, unlike the southern Irish Catholics who were violently anti-British. If Churchill found himself uncomfortable in this unusual role he did not show it. He put himself firmly on the side of parliamentary institutions and the rule of law. And, as always, action for him was more heartening—and delicious—than sitting behind a constitutional desk. If the crisis had exploded into civil war, as looked likely by July 1914, it is not clear what Churchill would have done. But the coming of European war shoved Ulster violently onto the back burner, and Churchill eagerly turned his attention in a totally different direction.
In fact he had been working for some months to get the navy into a high state of readiness, and as the buildup to war accelerated, he ordered the navy not to disband after its summer maneuvers but to take up action stations. From the start of the crisis, he was a prominent member of the war party. The issue to him was Belgium and her ports, especially Antwerp. Britain had always been opposed to these ports, aimed like pistols at her coast, being in the hands of a major power, especially France. That was why Britain gave a solemn guarantee of Belgian independence. Now Germany was the threat, and when the right wing of the German army, as part of the “Schlieffen Plan” to subdue France, swung through Belgian territory, Churchill was enthusiastically in favor of Britain sticking to the guarantee—“a mere scrap of paper” as the kaiser bitterly called it. Moreover he persuaded Lloyd George to take the same view and thus prevented the breakup of the government, though he was unable to stop Lord Morley, his friend and mentor, from resigning. When war came Churchill was ready, prepared psychologically and in every way, for what he realized would be the biggest conflict in history. He was like a man who had long schooled himself for a job and was now told to do it. And he had got the vast machine for which he was responsible geared up, too. The war, in many ways, proved a disaster for Churchill. But on his downfall, Lord Kitchener, who had been made chief warlord at the outset, reassured him, “There is one thing, at least, they can never take away from you—when the war began you had the fleet ready.”