Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire on 30 November 1874, the son of Lord Randolph Churchill and his American wife, Jennie. He was educated at Harrow and Sandhurst, and embarked on a military career which took him to India and Africa. He also began to make a name for himself as a war correspondent.
In 1899 he resigned his commission in the army and returned to England. He fought (unsuccessfully) a by-election as a Conservative at Oldham later in the year, but won the seat in the 1900 general election, thus first losing to and then defeating Walter Runciman.
Churchill found himself increasingly at odds with the Conservative leadership and crossed the floor of the Commons in 1904. His conversion to Liberalism was controversial: the public reason lay in his continued support for free trade but he may also have suspected that his personal prospects were better as a Liberal, given the Conservative disarray under Balfour. His literary talents were engaged in writing the life of his father. He had, however, shown an interest in social issues and had read Seebohm Rowntree’s work on poverty.
When Campbell-Bannerman formed his Liberal government in December 1905, Churchill accepted appointment as Under-Secretary for the Colonies. Having been returned as MP for Manchester North West, Churchill remained in this post until April 1908. Asquith brought him into the Cabinet, its youngest member, as President of the Board of Trade. He lost his seat in the ensuing by-election which was then obligatory, but found a new parliamentary seat in Dundee. He also found a wife in September 1908 Clementine Hozier, a woman ten years younger than himself. They eventually had one son and two daughters.
In the Cabinet Churchill by no means confined his interests to trade policy. He retained a keen interest in army matters and in general issues of foreign policy. In the January 1910 general election he was one of the most active Liberal platform speakers; his skill with words on the platform equalled his skill with the pen. At the age of thirty-five he became Home Secretary. It was a controversial period, and he took a firm line in upholding public order at a time of industrial discontent. A certain pugnacity was evident, as was an eye for publicity.
In September 1911, Churchill moved to become First Lord of the Admiralty. In previous years he had had reservations about the scale of naval expenditure, but in his new office he vigorously espoused the navy’s cause. He concerned himself contentiously both with broad strategic issues and with the roles of individuals. However, although he concentrated his formidable energy on naval matters, he continued to concern himself with the broad issues of policy confronting the government. He involved himself in the controversies surrounding Irish Home Rule (which he favoured) and dabbled with the possibility of far-reaching devolution within the British Isles as a whole.
In July 1914 he was not eager for war but nevertheless described himself to his wife as being interested, geared up and happy. He was not among that section of the party which was uncertain about the necessity for intervention. Many supposed that his personal dynamism and strategic vision would make him the outstanding war leader, but it turned out not to be the case. His career became mixed up in the controversies surrounding the disastrous attack on the Dardanelles in 1915. In the new coalition government of 1915 he became Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but resigned in November and went to serve on the Western Front.
He returned as Minister of Munitions in July 1917. Retaining his Dundee seat as a Coalition Liberal in 1918, he became Secretary of State for War and Air in 1919, and for the Colonies in 1921. After the fall of the Lloyd George coalition in 1922, Churchill was defeated at Dundee in the ensuing general election.
The following year, he failed to win Leicester West as a Liberal. His campaign there had become increasingly anti-Labour rather than anti-Conservative, and there was press speculation that he was on his way back to the party he had left. In 1924 he failed to win the Abbey Division of Westminster as an Independent anti-Socialist, but later that year was elected for Epping as a Constitutionalist. His separation from the Liberal Party was complete when he accepted office as Chancellor of the Exchequer in Baldwin’s new government.
Churchill’s political behaviour thereafter suggested that he was constricted by party politics. The Baldwin government having been defeated in 1929, he took an increasingly independent line, resigning from the Shadow Cabinet in 1931 in protest against proposals for increased Indian self-government. He was out of office, and one of the strongest critics of the governments policy of appeasement, until September 1939, when he again returned to the Admiralty on the outbreak of war.
His great moment came in May 1940, when he became Prime Minister at a time of national crisis as confidence in Chamberlain disappeared. His leadership of the coalition government in wartime became legendary. However, the saviour of the nation , as he was frequently held to be, suffered defeat in the 1945 general election, although he himself was safely returned for Woodford as a National Conservative. In opposition, he engaged in writing his own war memoirs, in a role as world statesman at a time of accelerating Cold War.
In 1951, following the Conservative electoral victory, he again became Prime Minister. Before his resignation in April 1955, he strove to be a mediator between East and West. Honours flowed thick and fast in the post-war period, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. In 1964 Churchill left the House of Commons. He died in London on 24 January 1965 and, after a state funeral, was buried in Bladon churchyard, near Blenheim, in Oxfordshire.
His twenty years as an active Liberal MP had come when he was at the youthful height of his powers. If the Liberal Party had remained as an integrated political force he might in due course have become its leader. In the event, however, his own vision of his country’s destiny and his own personal role could not be contained within Liberalism. Yet, for all his subsequent Conservatism, there were strands in his complex outlook which still reflected his Liberal phase.
A selection of his books – Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), The World Crisis (1923-31), Marlborough (1933-38), The Second World War (1948-54) testifies to his powers as an author. Key biographies include Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill (1991) a distillation of the author’s massive and meticulous study, the seventh and final volume of which was published in 1988; Keith Robbins, Churchill (1992); and H. M. Pelling, Winston Churchill (1974).
Keith Robbins was Vice Chancellor of the University of Wales at the time of writing this piece. His many books include The Eclipse of a Great Power: Modern Britain 1870-1992 (1993), The Blackwell Biographical Dictionary of British Political Life in the Twentieth Century (1990), Great Britain: Identities, Institutions and the Idea of Britishness (1998) and World History since 1945: A Concise History (1998).