Churchill's reputation in the 1930s

What was Churchill's reputation in the 1930s?

General opinion of Churchill was much less favourable than it was of Baldwin or Chamberlain. He spent much of the middle period of the thirties arguing against making any concessions which might weaken Britain's hold on India and making scathing comments about Gandhi, whom he described as "a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as fakir of a type well known in the East" (i.e. a fraud and a charlatan) and described it as "nauseating" to see him "striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor". At a time when public and political opinion was fast coming round to the idea that some form of self-government for India was both inevitable and right, such intemperate outbursts made Churchill seem increasingly out of date, a dinosaur, a "Colonel Blimp" figure, trumpeting ridiculous old Victorian ideas and unable to understand why no-one took him seriously. It is not difficult to see why the man who kept banging on about Britain's manifest destiny to rule India should have been viewed as equally out of touch when he harped on about how useless the League of Nations was and why Britain needed to build up her armed forces.

Churchill's judgement was thought to be seriously unreliable. He was already widely blamed for the Dardanelles fiasco of the First World War: not so much the failures in its execution but rather for having proposed such a risky venture without thinking it through properly in the first place. His political judgement seemed no better. Politicians who change party usually forfeit public trust; Churchill had changed party not once but twice. He had begun his political career as a Conservative, switched to the Liberals and held office under Asquith before switching back to the Conservatives in the twenties once it seemed clear the Liberal Party had no future. Such a record inevitably smacked of cynical opportunism. In the meantime, Churchill was heavily overspending, partly in improvements to his house at Chartwell in Kent and partly in his taste for expensive food and cigars; the stream of newspaper articles that flowed from his pen was motivated at least as much by fear of bankruptcy as by fear of German expansion. He was the only major politician to support Edward VIII throughout the Abdication Crisis, a position which earned him little respect amongst his fellow MPs.

Even Churchill's companions counted against him. His most devoted follower was Brendan Bracken, an Irish MP who was widely disliked (it was said of him that everything about him was phoney, even his hair, which looked like a wig but wasn't!); Churchill's scientific adviser, Professor Frederick Lindemann, was so arrogant and obstreperous that an entire committee charged with researching air defence resigned en masse rather than work with him any longer. If a man is to be judged by the company he keeps, Churchill's reputation in the thirties could hardly have been lower.

Churchill Papers CHAR 28/148/10. Engraving of the Duke of Marlborough, c 1740.

Reference: Churchill Papers CHAR 28/148/10. Engraving of the Duke of Marlborough, c 1740.

Part of Churchill's problem was that he was frustrated at being out of office. As if to rub it in, Churchill spent much of his time in the thirties researching and writing a biography of his ancestor, the eighteenth-century Duke of Marlborough. Virtually forgotten now, Marlborough had been a national hero in his day, a military titan who had virtually single-handedly scuppered Louis XIV's plans to dominate the continent and whose victories had changed the whole course of European history. The contrast between Marlborough's record of dazzling success and Churchill's record of almost equally dazzling failure was impossible to miss and underlined Churchill's sense of frustration at being outside the centre of events.

Part A: introduction