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Winston Churchill

( Originally Published 1907 )

IT was a quarter to twelve, midnight. Mr. Balfour was once more at bay, defending his tottering Ministry from collapse. The immediate point was a certain closure resolution. What were the terms? It was vital to the Opposition that they should know, and know to-night. Mr. Balfour fenced and feinted. He would not give the conditions. He would hand them to the Clerk on the adjournment. Once in his hands they were unpublished and undiscussable until to-morrow. The moment of adjournment had almost come, and Mr. Balfour had gained his point. He threw down the document on the table, and the Opposition sank back defeated. In the moment of discomfiture a figure moved towards the table the figure of a youth, fair, slight, with head thrust for-ward, eyes protuberant, eyebrows lacking, the whole air that of boyish audacity. He seized the document, turned back to his seat, and, before the House had quite realised what had happened, was disclosing, on the usual nightly motion that this House do now adjourn, the whole scheme in the form of a rain of questions addressed to Mr. Balfour. The secret was out. The Speaker rose, the House adjourned, and the members poured out into the lobbies, excitedly discussing Winston's audacity and what it had disclosed.

It was the Churchill touch. It carried the mind back to those brief years when another Churchill was the storm centre of the House, bearding the mighty Gladstone with calculated insolence, ridiculing the " Marshall and Snelgroves " of his own party, and leaping on to his seat in the hour of victory, waving his hat and shouting with schoolboy glee. What a meteor it was! How brilliant its path, how dramatic its climax, how tragic its eclipse! And now his son leaps forward into the arena, with the same daring, the same aplomb, the same incomparable insolence. Again the cry is " A Churchill ! A Churchill ! " and to that cry the street responds as to no other. For it is the call to high adventure and careless gallantry. It suggests the clatter of hoofs in the moonlight, the clash of swords on the turnpike road. It is the breath of romance stirring the prosaic air of politics.

" When Nature has fashioned a genius," says Emerson, " she breaks the mould." It is true of genius, in spite of the possible exception of the Pitts; it is not true of talent. A Caesar does not follow a Caesar, nor a Shakespeare a Shakespeare, nor a Cromwell a Cromwell. But to-day we have remarkable evidence of the transmission of high talent. Mr. Harcourt, Mr. Churchill, and Lord Hugh Cecil are not inferior to the fathers that begat them.

Mr. Churchill, indeed, is superior to his father. For to Lord Randolph's flair and courage and instinct for the game he adds a knowledge and industry his father did not possess. He works with the same fury that he plays, attacks a subject with the intrepidity with which he attacks an opponent in the House. " What are all those books on Socialism? " asked a friend of mine who was calling on Mr. Churchill just before his departure on a tour to East Africa. " They are going to be my reading on the voyage," he replied. " I'm going to see what the Socialist case really is." And so with his speeches. " The mistake you young men make," said Mr. Chamberlain to some rising politicians, is that you don't take trouble with your speeches." That is not Mr. Churchill's way. I have been told by one who was in Scotland with him when he was campaigning that he never appeared at his hostess's table until tea time. All day he might be heard booming away in his bedroom, rehearsing his facts and his flourishes to the accompaniment of resounding knocks on the furniture. It is not that he is without readiness. No one is more intrepid in debate. But he is too wise to rely on that faculty in a set speech. He has the genius which consists of taking infinite pains. The speech with which he leapt into Parliamentary fame was that in which, while still the youngest recruit of Toryism, he shattered Mr. Brodrick's army scheme. It electrified the House by its grasp of the problems of national defence and its spacious movement in the higher realm of moral purpose. " I wrote that speech out six times with my own hand," he told me.

The courage which that speech displayed sustained him throughout the transition from Toryism to Liberalism. There is no parallel in our time to the intensity of the feeling which that transition aroused. His rising filled the Government ranks with visible frenzy a frenzy which culminated one day in the whole party, two hundred and fifty strong, getting up as one man and marching out of the House as he rose to speak. It was the highest tribute ever paid to a Parliamentary orator. It was as though the enemy fled at his appearance from a literal battle-field. And, indeed, the whole spirit of his politics is military. It is impossible to think of him except in the terms of actual warfare. The smell of powder is about his path, and wherever he appears one seems to hear the crack of musketry and to feel the hot breath of battle. To his impetuous swiftness he joins the gift of calculating strategy. His eye takes in the whole field, and his skirmishes are not mere exploits of reckless adventure, but are governed by the purpose of the main battle. He would not, with Rupert, have pursued the flying wing he had broken: he would, like Cromwell, have turned and smashed in the enemy's centre from the rear.

This union of intrepidity and circumspection is accompanied by an independence of aim and motive that must always keep him a little under suspicion. He is a personal force and not a party instrument, and he will never be easily controlled except by himself. He knows nothing of the loyalties which have governed other contemporary leaders of the party. " C.-B." was anchored to a simple faith in democracy, Mr. Asquith is the authentic vehicle of the collective purpose, Mr. Harcourt is governed by tradition, even Mr. Lloyd George, with all his personal energy and initiative, is too sensitive to the popular judgment to run amuck. But Mr. Churchill knows no sanction except his own will, and when he is seized with an idea he pursues it with an intensity that seems unconscious of opposition. " I will go to Worms though there are as many devils in Worms as there are tiles on the roofs of the houses," said Luther. And that is Mr. Churchill's frame of mind.

It follows from this combination of daring and astuteness that his oratory has the qualities of the writer as well as of the rhetorician. There is form and substance as well as flame and spirit. Like the hero of his novel Savrola, in which, at twenty-three, he foreshadowed his career, he burnt the midnight oil over his brilliant impromptus. He will tell you that his father not only learned his speeches, but studied his gestures and his pauses, would fumble in his pockets for a note he did not want. Mr. Churchill is not indifferent to the same arts to heighten his effect, but with the consciousness of power he is tending to rely less upon mere artificialities of manner and more upon the appeal to the intelligence. Nor does his oratory need extrinsic aids. It is rich and varied in its essential qualities. The architecture is broad and massive. The colouring is vivid, but not gaudy. He does not worry a humour to weariness. He strikes the note of gravity and authority with a confidence that one can hardly reconcile with the youthful face. And his satire can be quite in the leisured eighteenth-century style, as when, attacking Mr. Balfour's Cabinet on the Fiscal issue, he said :

They are a class of right honourable gentlemen all good men, all honest men who are ready to make great sacrifices for their opinions, but they have no opinions. They are ready to die for the truth, if they only knew what truth was. They are weary of office; they wish anything would relieve them of its cares; but their patriotic duty compels them to remain, although they have no opinions to offer, holding their opinions undecided and unflinching, like George II. at the Battle of Dettingen, sans peur et sans avis.

He is extraordinarily youthful even for his years. He has the curiosity and animation of a child a child in fairyland, a child consumed with the thirst for life. He must know all, taste all, devour all. He is drunk with the wonder and the fascination of living. A talk with him is as exhilarating as a gallop across country, so full is it of adventure, and of the high spirits and eagerness of youth. No matter what the subject, soldiering or science, religion or literature, he plunges into it with the joy of a boy taking a " header " in the sea. And to the insatiable curiosity and the, enthusiasm of the child he joins the frankness of the child. He has no reserves and no shams. He takes you, as it were, by the arm on the instant, and makes you free of all the domain of his mind. You are welcome to anything that he has, and may pry into any corner you like. He has that scorn of concealment that belongs to a caste which never doubts itself and to a personality that is entirely fearless. And he is as frank with himself as with you. " Yes," he said, " I have read James' Immortality. I have read it three times. It impressed me deeply. But finally I came to the conclusion that I was lacking in the religious sense, and put it away." He has coupled with this sense of deficiency, a real reverence for the spiritual man. His admiration for Lord Hugh Cecil is sincere and unaffected. He speaks of him as one who dwells within the Palace of the King, while he stands without the gate.

His school was the barrack-room; his university the battle-field. He has served in two regiments of the line, fought with the Spaniards in Cuba, and held a commission in the South African Light Horse. He knows life in four continents, and has smelt powder in three. He has seen more wars than any man of his years; written more books than any soldier living. He has been a war correspondent; he has been taken prisoner; he has escaped from prison. And he showed the same address in war as in politics. General Smuts told me that when he held up the armoured train on which Mr. Churchill was captured he was struck by the energy and capacity of a fair-haired youth who led the defence. When they surrendered this youth modestly claimed special privileges in telegraphing to his friends on the ground that he was a war correspondent. The General laughed. " You have done all the damage that's been done," he said. " You fight too well to be treated as a civilian." " And now," added the General in telling me the story, " I am going to the Colonial Office to see if I can get a favour out of that fair-haired youth in memory of our meeting on the veldt."

When, hot from campaigning on Indian frontiers and Egyptian sands, he galloped up to Westminster with his breezy " stand and deliver," he found Mr. Balfour lacking in enthusiasm. Mr. Balfour knew his father indeed, followed his father in the jolly Hounslow Heath days of the early eighties. But while it was capital fun to go tiger-hunting with a Churchill, it was another affair to have a Churchill worrying you in office. He remembered his uncle's famous mot. When, after the memorable resignation, he was asked if he did not want Lord Randolph back, Lord Salisbury replied: " When you have got rid of a boil on the neck, you don't want it back again." Mr. Balfour determined that he would not have a boil on the neck.

His coolness did Mr. Churchill a service. It hastened his inevitable development. Like his father, he has the instinct of democratic appeal. His intellectual fearlessness carries him resistlessly along the path of constitutional development. The fundamental vice of Conservatism is that it distrusts the people. Its fundamental policy is to hoodwink the people, bribe them, drug them, use them as tools. Lord Randolph saw the folly of this. He saw that no party could be vital without the sanction of an instructed people, and that the modern State was healthy in proportion to the development of a healthy democratic opinion. He tried to hitch the democracy to the Tory chariot by making Toryism a real instrument of reform. It was a gallant dream, and he was broken on the wheel in the attempt. Mr. Churchill is happier in his fate. He was fired out of the Tory tabernacle before he had eaten out his heart in a vain service.

His future is the most interesting problem of personal speculation in English politics. At thirty-four he stands before the country one of the two most arresting figures in politics, his life a crowded drama of action, his courage high, his vision unclouded, his boats burned. " I love Churchill and trust him," said one of his colleagues to me. " He has the passion of democracy more than any man I know. But don't forget that the aristocrat is still there latent and submerged, but there nevertheless. The occasion may arise when the two Churchill's will come into sharp conflict, and I should not like to prophesy the result." We may doubt both the democrat and the aristocrat, and suspect that his real political philosophy is the philosophy of Caesarism. If we could conceive him in a great upheaval, he would be seen emerging in the rôle of what Bagehot calls " a Benthamite despot," dismissing all feudal ideas and legitimist pretensions, sweeping aside all aristocracies, proclaiming the democratic doctrine of the " greatest happiness of the greatest number " and seating himself astride the storm as the people's Caesar at once dictator and democrat.

But Caesarism, however picturesque and in certain conditions even unavoidable, is never more than a temporary episode, a stop-gap expedient, in a society shifting to new foundations. Our foundations are fixed and Mr. Churchill's genius will have to find its scope within existing limits. There his detachment from the current philosophies, his impetus of mind and his personal force make him a not easily calculable factor. More than any man of his time, he approaches an issue without mental reserves or the restraints of party caution or calculation. To his imperious spirit, a party is only an instrument. Au fond, he would no more think of consulting a party than the chauffeur would think of consulting his motor car. His magnificent egotism takes refugein no concealments. You see all the processes of his mind. It may be said of him, as Lord Russell said of the British Constitution, that he is like a hive of bees working under a glass cover. He leaves you in no doubt. He does not " hum and ha." He is not paralysed by the fear of consequences, nor afraid to contemplate great changes. He knows that to deal in millions is as simple as to deal in pence and that timidity is the unpardonable sin in politics.

Has he staying power? Can one who has devoured life with such feverish haste retain his zest to the end of the feast? How will forty find him ?—that fatal forty when the youth of roselight and romance has faded into the light of common day and the horizon of life has shrunk incalculably, and when the flagging spirit no longer answers to the spur of external things, but must find its motive and energy from within, or find them not at all.

That is the question that gives us pause. For, with all his rare qualities, Mr. Churchill is the type of " the gentleman of fortune." He is out for adventure and follows politics as he would follow the hounds. He has no animus against the fox, but he wants to be in " at the kill." It is recorded that when, a fiery-headed boy at Harrow, he was asked what profession he thought of taking up, he replied, " The Army, of course, so long as there's any fighting to be had. When that's over, I shall have a shot at politics." He is still the Harrow boy, having his " shot at politics "—not so much concerned about who the enemy may be or about the merits of the quarrel as about being in the thick of the fight and having good time. With the facility of the Churchill mind he feels the pulse of Liberalism with astonishing sureness, and interprets it with extraordinary ability. But the sense of high purpose is not yet apparent through the fierce joy of battle that possesses him. The passion for humanity, the stern resolve to see justice done though the heavens fall and he be buried in the ruins, the surrender of himself to the cause these things have yet to come. His eye is less on the fixed stars than on the wayward meteors of the night. And when the exhilaration of youth is gone, and the gallop of high spirits has run its course, it may be that this deficiency of high and abiding purpose will be a heavy handicap. Then it will be seen how far courage and intellectual address, a mind acutely responsive to noble impulses, and a quick and apprehensive political instinct will carry him in the leadership of men.

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