The Writing of “Lord Randolph Churchill”
“There is an England which stretches far beyond the well-drilled masses who are assembled by party machinery to salute with appropriate acclamation the utterances of their recognised fuglemen; an England of wise men who gaze without self-deception at the failings and follies of both political parties; of brave and earnest men who find in neither faction fair scope for the effort that is in them; of poor men who increasingly doubt the sincerity of party philanthropy. It was to that England that Lord Randolph Churchill appealed; it was that England he so nearly won; it is by that England he will be justly judged.” —WSC, Lord Randolph Churchill, 1906
British historian E. H. Carr’s dictum to study the historian before we study his history is particularly appropriate in the case of Winston Churchill’s biography of his father, Lord Randolph. One cannot fully appreciate either the biography or the biographer without understanding the relationship between father and son.
Violet Bonham Carter, a close lifetime friend of Winston’s, believed that the image of his father “dominated and obsessed his being…even the icy detachment and indifference of Lord Randolph failed to destroy the proud and passionate allegiance of his son….Until the end he worshipped at the altar of his unknown father.”1
In his own writings Churchill provides us with considerable evidence of filial hero-worship. In Thoughts and Adventures, he declared: “The greatest and most powerful influence in my early life was of course my father…. I conceived an intense admiration and affection for him; and, after his death, for his memory. I read industriously almost every word he had ever spoken and learnt by heart large portions of his speeches.”2
In My Early Life, Churchill relates that Randolph “seemed to own the key to everything or almost everything worth having. But if ever I began to show the slightest idea of comradeship, he was immediately offended; and when once I suggested that I might help his private secretary to write some of his letters, he froze me into stone. I know now that this would have been only a passing phase. Had he lived another four or five years, he could not have done without me.”3
Winston’s confidence that all would have come right is of course open to question. Had Lord Randolph lived a normal lifespan, he might have smothered his more illustrious son’s political career in its infancy. As it was, his father’s premature death was a major motivating factor in Winston’s decision to “pursue his [father’s] aims and vindicate his memory.”4
In a study of Churchill’s personality, psychoanalyst Anthony Storr offered a theory for understanding Winston’s worship of his father: “Children whose emotional needs have been insufficiently satisfied react to the lack with idealization on the one hand, and hostility on the other.”5 Winston Churchill’s life was an example of that paradox. Displays of aggression, stubbornness, resentment of authority and rebelliousness were apparent early in his life and continued throughout a tumultuous political career, culminating in the stirring call of 1940: “We shall never surrender.” On the other hand, his filial idealization was obsessive, and his early life was devoted to exonerating his father politically.
The political careers of father and son followed similar paths. Early in Parliament, Winston adopted much of Randolph’s philosophy and pursued the same capricious and independent relationship toward the discipline of political parties—even going a step his father shrank from: deserting the Conservatives for the Liberals. One of his proudest moments occurred in 1924 when—about to become a Conservative again—he took the oath as Stanley Baldwin’s Chancellor of the Exchequer, wearing the same robes worn by his father in that office. Much earlier, he performed an essentially cathartic exercise which helped “to know my father, which would have been a joy to me.” That exercise was to write his two-volume biography, Lord Randolph Churchill (1906).
Lord Randolph’s Colleagues
With the help of his father’s close friend, Lord Rosebery, Winston persuaded Lord Randolph’s literary executors to entrust the task of producing the official biography to him. Rosebery, Winston’s valued counselor, noted that “The plan was beset with difficulties. A son, who hardly knew his father as a public man or not at all, writing his father’s life; the story only ten years old and full of delicacies and resentments; many survivors of those times, whose toes it was impossible to avoid treading upon, still in existence…. And the author had normal animosities by leaving his party, and had to write with delicacy about both parties in view of past and present connections.”6
Winston had hoped that his greatest assistance would come from Rosebery: “I used to go to see Lord Rosebery in the later years of his life because apart from the respect I bore this distinguished man, I loved to hear him talk about my father. I had the feeling of getting nearer my father when I talked with his intimate and illustrious friend.”7 But Rosebery was ambivalent, reneged on some of his promises, and engaged in a “tiff” with Winston over the use of the word “scug” in a planned introductory essay to the book. “Scug” was an Eton slang term that Winston considered derogatory and unsuited in a biography written by a son. Rosebery’s essay, giving full marks to Winston for his larger work, was published separately, its author not hesitating to declare Lord Randolph Churchill “brilliantly written, [with] passages of high eloquence.”8
Winston’s own position within society and political circles gave him unique access to many other political friends and foes of his father, most of whom still lived, and many of whom assisted the author. Joseph Chamberlain provided immeasurable assistance. Arthur Balfour, then prime minister, offered to help in 1902 but, two years later, apologized for providing nothing and claimed he had conducted an unsuccessful hunt for correspondence. He did, however, ask Winston to delete a passage about his involvement in an exchange between Salisbury and Gladstone in 1885 over the possibility of granting a measure of self-government to Ireland. Churchill agreed, but the substance of the incident remained in the book. Lord Salisbury, with little time left to live, and Sir Michael Hicks Beach, gave Winston access to their correspondence with Lord Randolph. W. St. John Brodrick, then secretary of state for India, allowed the use of state papers on India but suggested that Winston obtain the permission of King Edward VII to use papers and letters on Lord Randolph’s correspondence with and about members of the Royal Family. Churchill agreed and received permission to use the relevant documents.
Review and Reaction
On publication in January 1906, Lord Randolph Churchill received considerable attention, as might be expected of a work by a rising young politician with an established literary reputation, about one of the most remarkable leaders of the previous generation. Readers were eager to know whether filial relationship would distort the author’s judgment, and whether Winston’s own political jousts with Balfour and Joseph Chamberlain would alter his perspective.
The biography was both admired and criticized because it showed Lord Randolph participating in the game of politics for the sheer pleasure of it. Admiration was extended for the clear and frank portrayal of Randolph’s extravagant behavior, but the biography’s claim that Lord Randolph’s “Tory Democracy” made the Conservative Party more democratic and popular was challenged. To many readers, Randolph was a cynical politician who believed that the gyrations of political parties had value for their own sake. “Had he been in America,” said one review, “he would have proved himself a ‘boss’ among ward-politicians.” Perhaps for that very reason, Theodore Roosevelt called Winston’s book a “clever, forceful, rather cheap and vulgar life of that clever, forceful, rather cheap and vulgar egoist, his father.”9
American reviewers liked the inside story aspect—how the biography explored the way in which a nation is governed, and how it was based on letters and documents unavailable to the public. Winston was given credit for using documents honestly, and openly portraying his father’s faults and errors. It was, to many observers, one of the great political biographies of the age.
From the perspective of time, scholars have been less enthusiastic. British historian J.H. Plumb has charged that Churchill deliberately doctored the evidence in order to whitewash Lord Randolph’s actions, that he quietly suppressed some documents and made little effort to obtain documents in the possession of others, and that he smothered Randolph’s prose in order to place his father in a better light.10
Although Winston claimed that “there is nothing more to tell,” many feel that the biography lacks balance because it dwells so much on the political machinations and touches too lightly on the personal and psychological aspects of Lord Randolph’s life. This approach is quite consistent with the tradition of 19th century historians, who were chroniclers and not primarily interpreters of psychological factors. It also results from Winston’s propinquity of time and status to the events and persons involved. Many protaganists in the story were still alive and active, and belonged to the society in which Winston moved. Indeed, Balfour was prime minister, and Edward VII was king!
Churchill’s interpretation of specific events are open to challenge. The entire story of the snubbing of Randolph by the then-Prince of Wales when Randolph brazenly took his brother’s part in the scandalous affairs of his brother and the prince, is passed off vaguely: “Lord Randolph incurred the deep displeasure of a great personage.” It is also claimed that while “this misfortune produced in Lord Randolph characteristics which afterwards hindered or injured his public work, it was also his spur. Without it he might have wasted a dozen years in frivolous and expensive pursuit of a silly world of fashion; without it he would probably never have developed popular sympathies or the courage to champion democratic causes.”11 While modern historians agree that the incident left Lord Randolph with a contempt for “society,” they hesitate to accept the argument that it converted him into a champion of democratic causes.
A modern reader, who requires the historian to ask the question “why,” will note that there are many areas into which Winston did not delve. He did not consider why his father’s behavior was so at variance with Lord Randolph’s claim that “public life has not great charm for me, as I am naturally very quiet, and hate bother and publicity.” He did not attempt to reconcile the paradox of the newly-enfranchised masses, working-class men on the edge of poverty, voting for the party of aristocrats, landowners and bankers. Nor did he study the steady growth of Toryism in radical Birmingham. He did, however, deal with a number of issues in detail and the reader can evaluate the book’s worth through consideration of some of these issues in light of more recent evidence.
There is little disagreement with Churchill over his father’s contributions in popularizing the ideas of “Tory Democracy.” Although critics are less kind regarding the merits of Randolph’s small alliance of rebellious Conservatives (dubbed “the Fourth Party”), they do agree that his personal popularity caused the Tories to become more acceptable to the masses. Winston cites the Dartford speech of 2 October 1886 as proof of his father’s commitment to a Tory Democratic program; others have had difficulty in delineating any integrated political philosophy from Randolph’s speeches. Robert Blake is one of the most critical modern reviewers: “The truth is that [Randolph] had no real policy. He talked about Tory Democracy and the importance of the working-class Tories, but he showed no sign of having any program for them.”12
Regarding the most traumatic event in Lord Randolph’s political life, his resignation from the Cabinet, Winston cites irreconcilable philosophical differences between his father and Tory leader Lord Salisbury, a cynical willingness by Salisbury to sacrifice his opinions to get his way, and tactical miscalculations by Lord Randolph as the principal causes. Winston believed that his father could not have invited the support of potential allies like Joseph Chamberlain because “so strictly did he interpret the idea of Cabinet loyalty.” But Winston must have known that Lord Randolph was in secret communication with Chamberlain on budget items. Why did he not divulge this information?
Sir Michael Hicks Beach was an influential member of the Salisbury government—so powerful, according to Winston, that “had he made common cause with Churchill, the Ministry would surely have fallen.” But Winston makes no attempt to deal with Lord Randolph’s failure to appreciate the potential influence of his friend. What may have been a fatal miscalculation by Randolph was a major omission by his biographer. Its exclusion may have resulted from the fact that in the event of a withdrawal by Lord Rosebery, Hicks Beach would have been the final arbitrator in any dispute between Winston and his father’s literary trustee.
Winston’s cousin “Sunny,” the Duke of Marlborough, while full of admiration for the biography, lamented that Winston’s “anxiety to be impartial” made him “lean towards the side of the stern critic…. I do not think that RC’s letters are quite happily chosen. Some of them display too much the cynical and flippant frame of mind, which characteristics were exceptional rather than permanent in him. The reader forms the idea that levity playe’d too large a part in his nature.”13
In his 1930 autobiography, Winston Churchill reflected further on his father, considering that Lord Randolph had been a victim in part of his own flaws, and accounting for their relationship by the peculiar standards of the times in which they lived. The following account shows a more mature, objective Winston than the original author:
I can see my father now in a somewhat different light from the days when I wrote his biography. I have long passed the age at which he died. I understand only too plainly the fatal character of his act of resignation. He was “the daring pilot in extremity.” That was his hour. But conditions changed with the Unionist victory of 1886. Quiet times were required and political repose. Lord Salisbury represented to the nation what it needed and desired….Moreover, from the moment Lord Randolph Churchill became Chancellor of the Exchequer responsible in large measure for the affairs of the nation, he ceased in vital matters to be a Tory. He adopted with increasing zest the Gladstonian outlook….and in all social and labour questions he was far beyond what the Whig and middle-class Liberal of the epoch could have tolerated…. He was not the man to take his decisions from party caucuses. When he was faction-fighting he fought to win, seizing anything that came along. But when responsible, his contribution to public affairs was faithful and original. He never sat down to play a cold, calculated game. He said what he thought. It was better so.”14
The Majesty of Lord Randolph Churchill
The true merit of this work lies less with the career of its subject than the advantage of intimacy between subject and author, between author and sources. The bias of kinship is very strong. Although Winston did not shrink from discussing his father’s faults, his emotional needs prevented him from producing an entirely objective study. This fact was recognized by his contemporaries, but the biases of family and friends caused them to react in different ways.
Despite its success in 1906, after an unabridged single-volume edition in 1907, Lord Randolph Churchill lay dormant until 1952, when it was reissued by Odhams Press. Churchill had again become prime minister, and was too busy, or too removed from the subject by then, to consider a “revised edition.” Nevertheless it remains of immense literary value. Few writers can tell a political story with the majesty of Winston Churchill. And that makes reading Lord Randolph Churchill a rewarding endeavor.
1 Violet Bonham Carter, Winston Churchill: An Intimate Portrait (New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1965), 28.
2 Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures (London: Leo Cooper, 1990), 31-32.
3 Winston S. Churchill, My Early Life (London: Thornton Butterworth, 1930), 60.
4 Ibid., 76.
5 Anthony Storr, “The Man” in A.J.P. Taylor, ed. Churchill Revised: A Critical Assessment (New York: Dial Press, 1969), 230-31.
6 Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, Volume II, Young Statesman, 1901-1914. (Hillsdale College Press, 2007), 141.
7 Churchill, My Early Life, 62.
8 Lord Rosebery, Lord Randolph Churchill. (London: Humphreys, 1906), 4-5.
9 Blackwood’s Magazine, February, 1906. See “Churchill and the Presidents: Theodore Roosevelt” on this website: http://bit.ly/2b1XHwb.
10 J. H. Plumb, “The Historian” in Churchill Revised, 131-33.
11 Winston S. Churchill, Lord Randolph Churchill (1 vol. edition, London: Macmillan, 1907), 61.
12 Robert Blake, The Conservative Party from Peel to Churchill (London: Faber & Faber 1970), cf. chapter V, “Tory Democracy and the Rule of Lord Salisbury, 1881-1902.”
13 The Duke of Marlborough to WSC, 7 January 1906, in Randolph S. Churchill, Winston S. Churchill, document vol. 3, Early Years in Politics 1901-1907 (Hillsdale College Press, 2007), 489.
14 Churchill, My Early Life, 61-62.
John Plumpton was senior editor of Finest Hour for most of the time I was editor for the International Churchill Society, from 1982 to 2014. Thinking back on our best pieces, this one strikes me as his most important contribution (Spring 1986). To those who know Churchill only as the heroic figure of World War II, this helps point readers to the value of understanding a larger picture. With the author’s permission I have revised and updated the text and completed the endnotes. John Plumpton continues to serve the cause on Twitter with his regular posts (@churchilltoday) and teaches a Churchill-related course one term per year at an Ontario university. —Richard Langworth
First published in Finest Hour, Spring 1986.