Winston Churchill on Liberalism and Socialism

views updated

Winston Churchill on Liberalism and Socialism


By: Winston Churchill

Date: May 4, 1908

Source: Churchill, Winston. "Liberalism and Socialism." May 4, 1908.

About the Author: Winston Churchill (1874–1965) was a member of Parliament in Britain for more than fifty years and, following his time as prime minister during World War II, came to be widely recognized as among the greatest Britons of all time. The son of a former chancellor of the exchequer, Churchill first found fame as a journalist and would later win the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writings.


Winston Churchill was born at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, in November 1874. The son of a Conservative member of Parliament (MP) and later chancellor of the exchequer, Sir Randolph Churchill, and an American socialite, Lady Jennie Churchill, he was a failure at school and joined the armed forces without attending university. He eventually found success in his early twenties as a war reporter for the Daily Graphic, Daily Telegraph, and Morning Star. Among his early assignments, he covered the Cuban revolt and the British campaign in the Sudan, but found fame for his dispatches during the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) in which he was captured and held in a prisoner of war camp, from which he eventually escaped. His escapades and family heritage helped make him among the most famous journalists of his day.

Churchill had tried to follow in his father's political footsteps as early as 1899, when he stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative parliamentary candidate in a by-election [the term given to a mid-term election caused by the death or resignation of a sitting MP] at Oldham, near Manchester. On his return from South Africa in the fall of 1900 he again stood as Conservative candidate in the general election, this time winning a parliamentary seat.

The young Churchill was a charismatic and maverick MP. His fame and huge popularity brought him a prominence not normally associated with a back-bench MP, although many of his colleagues in the Conservative Party regarded him a troublemaker. Churchill's opposition to his own party's plans for military spending and trade tariffs brought him into direct opposition with the Conservative leadership and by 1904 he had effectively been cast out of the party. That summer he crossed the floor [the phrase given to MPs switching political allegiance] and became a Liberal MP.

When the Liberals took office in February 1906, Churchill held a variety of ministerial roles within the government. In 1908, he was elevated to the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. In this role Churchill was closely allied to the maverick chancellor of the exchequer, David Lloyd George (1863–1945), who was in the process of designing the broadest social policy reforms in British history. These reform measures became the basis of British social policy and exist to this day. They included old age pensions, as well as unemployment and sickness benefits. They were to be paid for by increased taxation, particularly of the landed aristocracy who were to be subject to land and inheritance taxes.

The Liberal social reforms attracted a mixture of delight and derision. Liberals saw it as an election winner and a way of checking the progress of the Labour Party, a socialist political party which had begun contesting elections only a few years earlier. Those who benefited from the implementation of the plans were invariably delighted: old people, sometimes lifted out of poverty by the provision of a pension, even referred to their new allowance as the "Lloyd George."

However, in taxing the rich, the Liberals were portrayed as attacking the very fabric of British society. Worse still, they were tainted by accusations of socialism, which at the time was viewed by some as a near-revolutionary political creed, which threatened not just the old order of the monarchy and aristocracy, but the existence of the British Empire. The main plank of the Liberal reforms, the 1908 budget, was blocked by Parliament's unelected upper house, the House of Lords. This house consisted primarily of politically conservative aristocrats who foresaw the threat to their fortunes posed by the Liberal reforms. The legislation passed between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and the impasse precipitated a constitutional crisis.

At the same time, prominent Liberal MPs such as Lloyd George, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, and Churchill assiduously waged a press and public speaking campaign to allay voter's concerns and sell the benefits of their reform program.


Liberalism is not Socialism, and never will be. There is a great gulf fixed. It is not only a gulf of method, it is a gulf of principle. There are many steps we shall take which our Socialist opponents or friends, whichever they like to call themselves, will have to take with us; but there are immense differences of principle and of political philosophy between the views we put forward and the views they put forward.


Liberalism has its own history and its own tradition. Socialism has its formulas and its own aims. Socialism seeks to pull down wealth; Liberalism seeks to raise up poverty. Socialism would destroy private property; Liberalism would preserve private interests in the only way in which they can be safely and justly preserved, namely, by reconciling them with public right. Socialism would kill enterprise; Liberalism would rescue enterprise from the trammels of privilege and preference. Socialism assails the pre-eminence of the individual; Liberalism seeks, and shall seek more in the future, to build up a minimum standard for the mass. Socialism exalts the rule; Liberalism exalts the man. Socialism attacks capital; Liberalism attacks monopoly.

These are the great distinctions which I draw, and which, I think you will agree, I am right in drawing at this election between our respective philosophies and our ideas. Don't think that Liberalism is a faith that is played out, that it is a philosophy to which there is no expanding future. As long as the world rolls round, Liberalism will have its part to play—grand, beneficent, and ameliorating—in the relation of men and States.


Ah gentlemen, I don't want to embark on bitter or harsh controversy, but I think the exalted ideal of the Socialists—a universal brotherhood, owning all things in common–is not always supported by the evidence of their practice. They put before us a creed of universal self-sacrifice. They preach it in the language of spite and envy, of hatred and all uncharitableness. They tell us that we should dwell together in unity and comradeship. They are themselves split into twenty obscure factions, who hate and abuse each other even more than they hate and abuse us.


They wish to reconstruct the world. They begin by leaving out human nature. 'Equality of reward, irrespective of service rendered'—is not this their maxim? It is expressed in other ways. You know the phrase, 'From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.' How nice that sounds. Let me put it another way. 'You shall work according to your fancy; you shall be paid according to your appetite.' Although I have tried my very best to understand these propositions, I have never been able to imagine the mechanical heart in the Socialist world which is to replace the ordinary human heart that palpitates in our breasts. What motive is to induce men, not for a day, or an hour, or a year, but for all their lives, to make a supreme sacrifice of their individuality? What motive is to induce Scotsmen, who spread all over the world and win their way by various paths to eminence and power in every land and climate, to make the great and supreme sacrifice of their individuality? I have heard of loyalty to a Sovereign. We have heard of love of country. Ah, but it is to be a great cosmopolitan republic. We have heard of love of family and wives and children. These are the mere weaknesses of the bad era in which we live. We have heard of faith in a world beyond this when all its transitory pleasures and perils shall have passed away, a hope that carries serene consolation to the heart of men. Ah, but they deny its existence.


And what then are we to make this sacrifice for? It is for the sake of society. And what is society? I will tell you what society is. Translated into concrete terms, Socialistic 'society' is a set of disagreeable individuals who obtained a majority for the caucus at some recent election, and whose officials in consequence would look on humanity through innumerable grills and pigeon-holes and across innumerable counters, and say to them 'Tickets, please.' Truly this grey old world has never seen so grim a joke.


Now, ladies and gentlemen, no man can be either a collectivist or an individualist. He must be both; everybody must be both a collectivist and an individualist. For certain of our affairs we must have our arrangements in common. Others we must have sacredly individual and to ourselves. We have many good things in common. You have the army, the navy, the police, the fire brigade, the civil service in common. But we don't eat in common; we eat individually. And we don't ask the ladies to marry us in common. And you will still find the truth lies in these matters, as it always lies in difficult matters, midway between extreme formulas. It is in the nice adjustment of the respective ideas of collectivism and individualism that the problem of the world and the solution of that problem lie in the years to come.


But I have no hesitation in saying that I am on the side of those who think that a greater collective element should be introduced into the State and municipalities. I should like to see the State undertaking new functions, particularly stepping forward into those spheres of activity which are governed by an element of monopoly. Your tramways and so on; your great public works, which are of a monopolistic and privileged character—there I see a wide field for State enterprise to enter upon. But when we are told to exalt and admire a philosophy which destroys individualism and seeks to replace it by collectivism, I say that is a monstrous and imbecile conception which can find no real acceptance in the minds and hearts—and the hearts are as trustworthy as the minds—in the hearts of sensible people.…


Liberalism will not die. Liberalism is a quickening spirit—it is immortal. It will live on through all the days, be they good days or be they evil days. No, I believe it will even burn stronger and brighter and more helpful in evil days than in good—just like your harbour lights which shine out across the waters, and which on a calm night gleam with soft refulgence, but through the storm flash a message of life to those who toil on the rough waters.


The constitutional crisis caused by the Liberal reform budget would bubble on until 1911 at which point King George V agreed to create as many Liberal peers as were needed to overcome the Conservative opposition in the House of Lords. Faced with this prospect, the Lords backed down and the Liberal social reform program was able to continue. Limited reform of the House of Lords would also take away some of its earlier powers.

By this time, however, the Liberal majority in the House of Commons had been substantially weakened. Although this only slightly impeded their social reformism, it marked the onset of a brief period when Irish political parties held the balance in the House of Commons. This would have a profound effect on the politics of Ireland. Reliant on Irish Nationalist support to form a government after the December 1910 General Election, the Liberals promised home rule. After the Easter Rising of 1916 and the War of Independence (1919–21) this manifested as outright independence, although shorn of the six northern counties that remained under British rule.

Churchill became home secretary in 1910 and First Lord of the Admiralty a year later. He held this position until World War I, but was forced to resign after overseeing the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign in the Dardanelles. This proved so catastrophic that it almost wrecked Churchill's career and the specter of it still hung over him even when he later achieved far greater glories. A spell fighting in the trenches helped restore some of his reputation, and Churchill returned to government in July 1917 as Minister of Munitions, later serving as secretary of state for the Colonies.

The Liberals, however, were a declining political force, gripped by infighting and splits. Churchill lost his parliamentary seat at the 1922 general election and failed to win back a seat at the following year's general election. Slowly, however, he was edging back towards the Conservative Party. He was elected Constitutionalist MP for Epping in 1924, though with Conservative backing, and was formally welcomed back into the party ranks a year later. "Anyone can rat," he would muse, "But it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat." [One of the meanings of to "rat" is to switch allegiance.]

Churchill served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government (1924–1929), but his earlier "ratting", high profile political failures (Gallipoli; Britain's fateful return to the Gold Standard; his largely inglorious reign as chancellor), and differences over fundamental issues of policy, such as free trade, left him marginalized within his party and widely discredited in the public's eyes. He spent much of the 1930s consumed with depression and fighting a lonely battle speaking out against Nazi Germany and appeasement. Although he would go on to achieve political immortality with his extraordinary conduct as prime minister during World War II, had that war never happened Churchill would probably have faded from the political scene, forgotten and discredited.

Churchill's political infidelities, his changing of parties, and his greatness as a wartime leader (when party politics were rendered largely irrelevant) have tended to blur his political viewpoints. In essence he was a traditional Conservative—a backer of imperialism, l'aissez faire economics, and limited social reform—but was an MP at a time when the Conservative Party was taking a different course.

If anything, what consistently marked Churchill's politics over time was a vehement anti-Socialist stance that occasionally bordered on hysteria. At various times in his career he used force to break up strikes; said that the miners of the 1926 General Strike should be shot with machine guns; sought to deploy the British army to defeat the Bolsheviks after the Russian Revolution; praised Benito Mussolini for defeating Italian Communists; and was contemptuous of Labour Party MPs, even those, such as Clement Atlee, who would participate in his wartime government.



Cook, Christopher. A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900–2001. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.

Dangerfield, George. The Strange Death of Liberal England. London: Paladin, 1983.

Jenkins, Roy. Churchill. London: Macmillan, 2001.

Lloyd-George, Robert. David and Winston. London: John Murray, 2005.

About this article

Winston Churchill on Liberalism and Socialism

Updated About content Print Article