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In a wider perspective, the College’s origins were embedded in several contexts which reflect the British milieux of the mid-20th century.
The founding concept reflected an anxiety, recurrent since the waning of the first Industrial Revolution, that British society did not nurture its technologists adequately, that achievement in pure science outstripped applied, and that economic and political leadership lay with members of the traditional professions, educated in the humanities, who disdained or ignored engineers and entrepreneurs.
When the College began, public debate became engulfed in the Two Cultures controversy, in which a founder Fellow, the novelist and scientific civil servant, C. P. Snow, crossed swords with the literary critic F. R. Leavis. Snow asked: Can inhabitants of the modern world call themselves civilised if they cannot state the second law of thermodynamics? It was a dramatic plea on behalf of scientific culture. Leavis thought Snow was a philistine and that his vision – and the new Churchill College — embodied a soulless technocratic utilitarianism. Needless to say, members of the College did not agree.
The College is a living memorial in honour of Winston Churchill, a quintessential British hero. In an important sense, the College’s psychological birth lies in 1940, when Churchill became Prime Minister and, after the fall of France, Britain stood alone and defiant against Adolf Hitler. The College’s third Master, Sir Hermann Bondi, an Austrian Jew who had fled the Nazis, regularly reminded his audience at the annual Founder’s Dinner that civilisation had hung upon a thread in 1940, and spoke eloquently of the one man who held barbarism at bay. The national cult of Winston Churchill was at its peak when the College was conceived, and it has waxed again in the 21st century: a BBC poll in 2002 declared Churchill ‘the greatest Briton’. His secretary, Colville, wrote that ‘the Battle of Britain of the future will be fought not on the beaches but in the laboratories’.
Pride in wartime victory was allied to concern that Britain find a new role, especially as the old British Empire went into rapid decline. Churchill believed that in the future Britain must depend instead on its human capital. In his speech at the site of the new College he said: ‘Since we have neither the massive population, nor the raw materials, nor yet adequate agricultural land to enable us to make our way in the world with ease, we must depend for survival on our brains’.
The Second World War was a scientists’ war, when a fraternity of Whitehall ‘boffins’ raced to achieve superiority in radar, air warfare, and the atomic bomb. Like no other Prime Minister, Churchill understood the importance of science in war. The College’s first, second, and third Masters, and many founder Fellows, belonged to that fraternity: not academics only, but scientists at war. Despite C. P. Snow’s laments, scientists entered the corridors of power as never before. Snow’s own work in civil service recruitment was vital, while his novels celebrated the ‘New Men’ of the atomic age.
Pride in British science owed much to the pre-War heyday of nuclear physics, the golden age of Lord Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory, which achieved 29 Nobel Prizes. The first Master, Cockcroft, was one of Rutherford’s protégés. In the 1950s Cockcroft was one of Britain’s best-known scientists, dubbed the ‘atom chief’. Partly to counter the sombre fact of Cold War nuclear weaponry, he became an enthusiastic pundit for the ‘peaceful atom’, which seemed to promise limitless, cheap, clean, safe nuclear energy. The College was officially opened in the same year as the leader of the Labour Party, Harold Wilson, won a general election with a slogan promising to remould Britain in the ‘white heat of the technological revolution’.
In the 1950s the Cold War was at its height, accompanied by an acute sense that the West was lagging behind the scientific achievements of the Soviet Union. Sputnik, the world’s first space satellite, was launched in 1957, and caused near panic among Western policy-makers. In Britain and America money was pumped into university science and engineering. Explicitly seeking to counter the Soviet threat, Sir Winston urged all speed in training technologists for the West. Churchill College was announced a few months later. Newspaper headlines linked Cambridge’s new ‘atom college’ to the Communist threat.
At mid-century Britain lauded the ideal of ‘meritocracy’. The word was coined by a founder Fellow of Churchill, the sociologist Michael (later Lord) Young, whose Rise of the Meritocracy (1958) envisaged a society in which jobs and rewards were geared to ‘IQ + effort’, a society where what counted was trained talent, rather than class, wealth, or inheritance. It was a progressive ideal, but not necessarily an egalitarian one, and it contained echoes of H. G. Wells’s futurist novels about a new technocratic elite. In the post-War era, meritocracy was closely allied to faith in grammar schools as engines of social mobility, as against the ancient ‘public’ (private) schools. The grammar schools, coupled with the arrival of universal state grants, enabled a new generation, who had demonstrated their ‘IQ’, to attend university, whose parents had not had the opportunity to do so. Michael Young was himself ambivalent about ‘meritocracy’ and his book was intended as a satire, but the word caught on and has often been used positively by politicians and social commentators. Young was the University’s first lecturer in sociology, and Churchill College embraced several new disciplines, often disdained by older colleges: among its early Fellows were the University’s first professors of Operations Research and Industrial Relations.
Mid-twentieth century Britain has been called a ‘corporatist’ state, in which government, industry, and trade unions combined in unison to achieve collective social aims, especially in industrial strategy and manpower planning. The Trade Unions become almost a department of government, as part of the consensual post-war settlement. In the later era of the Thatcherite free market, this period would be regarded as economically sclerotic, and trade unions demonised as enemies of productivity. It is remarkable that the Transport and General Workers’ Union made a large donation to establish a Cambridge college, and that the President of the Amalgamated Engineering Union sat alongside the Tory Sir Winston and captains of industry among its founding Trustees. The two parts of the College Library are named after a contrasting couple: an archetypal capitalist press baron, Brendan Bracken, and archetypal socialist trade union boss, Ernest Bevin.
Looking further afield, we find that Winston Churchill’s vaunting of Britain’s ‘Special Relationship’ with the United States also made its impact on the College. American funds helped to create the College, especially the Archives Centre, where the Jock Colville Hall proudly displays the names of American donors. The College’s connection with the Winston Churchill Foundation of the United States is long-lasting, the Foundation sending an annual cohort of talented Churchill Scholars. The College’s Overseas Fellowship scheme has been populated especially by Americans, visiting Cambridge for sabbatical research. In the 1950s Britain did not yet look toward a Continental European future. Only subsequently would the College, like the nation, begin to look eastwards, for instance to Denmark and France, with which the College has its closest European ties today.