By Gwydion M. Williams
It has been occasionally noted that Churchill’s opposition to Hitler was not different in kind from his refusal to accept Dominion status for India, which might have preserved a kind of Empire for much longer than actually happened. It is useful now to hype his contribution against Hitler and ignore the degree to which Churchill was trying to preserve the fatally-weakened British hegemony.
Churchill was not an anti-Fascist, he rather approved of Mussolini, saying in the 1920s that the Italian Fascist movement had “rendered a service to the whole world”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1966 edition) And what he did at Tonypandy in 1910 broke a rule that had been established in 1688 and still holds today: that troops are never ever used in internal disputes on the British mainland.
In the Encyclopaedia Britannica DVD edition of 2002, the whole topic of Churchill and Mussolini is absent from the rewritten text. And while the 1966 edition speaks of him “calling in the military to aid the police in the Welsh miners strike in Tonypandy”, the current edition says that “he had to devote himself principally to coping with a sweeping wave of industrial unrest and violent strikes. Upon occasion his relish for dramatic action led him beyond the limits of his proper role as the guarantor of public order.” Clarity has been replaced by vagueness, troops and Tonypandy are no longer mentioned as such. And the Microsoft Encarta also dodges both topics, while citing an obituary from the Times which omits Churchill’s role as a strike-breaker.
The left has kept the memory of Tonypandy alive, quite properly, though some on the left have crapped up by exaggerated talk about ‘massacres’ which allows smooth-talking Tories to dismiss those claims and ignore the substantive issue.
Of course massacres are just as bad regardless of who they are applied to. Using troops against demonstrators outside of the British mainland was not at all unusual—the Amritsar Massacre against Indian nationalists in 1919, for instance. The man responsible was criticised by a Commission of Inquiry, but also praised by the House Of Lords. It was a willingness to apply the same methods back home that was seen differently, which is why I’d see Churchill as the man who’d have probably led a Fascist development in Britain had the ruling class seen it as necessary. (Sir Oswald Mosley was always marginal.)
Churchill as Home Secretary in 1910 was willing to use troops to support police who were protecting strike-breakers. The troops didn’t shoot anyone, but he had broken the existing understanding that there was one set of rules for mainland Britain and another for the British Empire (including Ireland). There had been breaches of this standard—Peterloo in 1819, and a handful of other incidents. But it was always a matter for protest, and the ruling class was always unhappy about taking things to such an extreme. But Churchill himself had small respect for existing rules when they got in his way.
In the 1920s, Churchill approved of Mussolini and Italian Fascism because he had been prepared to do much the same in Britain, if it had been necessary. He opposed Hitler as part of the same anti-German struggle that he had helped launch in 1914. It was only later that mainstream opinion chose to re-define the war as anti-Fascist, at a time when Germans were needed as Cold War allies.
You’ll find very little about Churchill’s 1920s support for Mussolini in most histories—Roy Jenkins’s huge biography skips over it in just one sentence. Fortunately there are other sources:
“Mussolini had another ardent English admirer, whose name is known universally, and who, while holding a seat in the British Cabinet, went on pilgrimage to Rome to express his admiration two years after the murder of Matteotti, when the character of the Fascist regime was well established. Here is the account of that pilgrimage which appeared in the Times on 21st January, 1927:
“‘Mr. Churchill On Fascism.
“‘Antidote to Soviet Poison.’
“(From Our Own Correspondent)
“Rome, Jan 20
“‘Before leaving for London by the mid-day train to-day, Mr. Churchill received representatives of the Italian and foreign Press. Mr. Churchill informed his audience that he had prepared what he, an ex-journalist, considered the questions and answers most likely to help them in their work, and that a typed copy of this would be given to whomsoever desired one. The following are extracts in his own words from the impressions made upon him by a week’s visit to Italy.
“‘You will naturally ask me about the interviews I have had with Italian statesmen and in particular with Signor Mussolini and Count Volpe. Those interviews were purely formal and of a general character. It is a good thing in modern Europe for public men in different countries to meet on a friendly and social basis and form personal impressions of one another. It is one of the ways in which international suspicion may be diminished and frank and confident relations maintained.
“‘I could not help being charmed, like so many other people have been, by Signor Mussolini’s gentle and simple bearing and by his calm detached poise in spite of so many burdens and dangers. Secondly, anyone could see that he thought of nothing but the lasting good, as he understands it, of the Italian people, and that no lesser interest was of the slightest consequence to him.
“‘I am sure that I am violating no confidence when I say that a large part of my conversation with Signor Mussolini and with Count Volpe turned on the economic position of the Italian wage earner… I was very glad to have it proved to me by facts and figures that there is a definite improvement month by month over the preceding year…
“‘I have heard a great deal about your new law of corporations which, I am told, directly associates twenty millions of active citizens with the State and obliges the State to undertake very direct responsibilities in regard to these dependents. Such a movement is of the deepest interest, and its results will be watched in every country. It will certainly require the utmost good will and cooperation of all the people, as well as the wise and clear guidance of the State. But at any rate, in the face of such a system, ardently accepted, it is quite absurd to suggest that the Italian Government does not rest upon popular bases or that it is not upheld by the active and practical assent of the great masses.
“‘If I had been an Italian I am sure that I should have been wholeheartedly with you from the start to finish in your triumphant struggle against the bestial appetites and passions of Leninism. But in England we have not had to fight this danger in the same deadly form. We have our way of doing things. But that we should succeed in grappling with Communism and choking the life out of it-of that I am absolutely sure.
“‘I will, however, say a word on the international aspect of Fascismo. Externally, your movement has rendered a service to the whole world. The great fear which has always beset every democratic leader or working-class leader has been that of being undermined or overbid by someone more extreme than he: It seems that a continued progression to the Left, a sort of inevitable landslide into the abyss was characteristic of all revolutions. Italy has shown that there is a way of fighting the subversive forces which can rally the mass of the people, properly led, to value and wish to defend the honour and stability of civilised society. She has provided the necessary antidote to the Russian poison. Hereafter, no great nation will be unprovided with the ultimate means of protection against cancerous growths, and every responsible labour leader in every country ought to feel his feet more firmly planted in resisting levelling and reckless doctrines. The great mass of people love their country and are proud of its flag and history. They do not regard these as incompatible with a progressive advance towards social justice and economic betterment.’” (The Times, 21st January, 1927.) Republished here from The Reason For Irish Neutrality, by Brendan Clifford, included in the publication of Elizabeth Bowen’s Notes On Eire, Aubane Historical Society 1999.
Roy Jenkins manages just one bland phrase about Churchill’s whole-hearted support for Mussolini, in a book of some 900 pages with many detailed examinations of Churchill’s words and deeds. He does at least take note of the matter, which most other ‘experts’ do not. But all he says is that Churchill had “two encounters with Mussolini in Rome, after which he issued much too friendly statements”. Even this is buried in a paragraph dealing with other matters: Churchill’s support for Mussolini may be a fact, but Roy Jenkins was not going to let it be elevated to the status of fact of history, a truth that forms part of the general world view.
Born in Abersychan, the son of a miners’ union official and Labour member of Parliament, he ended his life as Baron Jenkins of Hillhead and had totally absorbed a 1950s version of the ruling class viewpoint. Though I have no great regard for former House Of Commons Speaker George Thomas, he did make a point of sorts by becoming Viscount Tonypandy. Jenkins preferred to celebrate Glasgow Hillhead, which returned him as an MP during his time as leader of the Social Democrats.
Jenkins does say quite a lot about Churchill’s 1910 actions as Home Secretary during the confrontations at Tonypandy—he’s several decades ‘off-message’ and doesn’t know that it’s supposed to be forgotten about. But even on this matter he is ‘much too friendly’ to behaviour by Churchill that was seen as outrageous even in the much rougher and more hierarchical world of the 1910s.
Jenkins treats Churchill’s anti-left hysteria as if it were an amusing oddity, not as part of a formidable system of global imperialism that unexpectedly blundered itself into oblivion. Such mildness and consensus-building made a certain amount of sense in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Tories had accepted the Labour reforms of 1945-50. But it was based on a smug belief that the post-1945 order was eternal and that the Churchillian mythology could not be used to overturn it, as Thatcher was later to do.
Churchill in his second government from 1950-55 led the way in accepting that times had changed and that the Tories should only alter secondary matters. While this consensus held, it was sensible enough to keep Churchill as a figure of ‘national unity’. But that consensus broke up in the 1980s, with the Tories under Thatcher presenting Labour as betrayers of the great heritage left to them by Churchill. Under such circumstances, Churchill must be put back in his true context as a defender of lost causes, with even less connection to the world of the 1980s than to the world of the 1950s.
Jenkins does at least mention that he was seen as a possible British Mussolini in the 1930s, a much more serious and popular figure than Sir Oswald Mosley. He documents Churchill’s failed attempts to form a ‘King’s Party’ during the 1936 crisis over Edward 8th. Jenkins takes it for granted that these were unimportant jolts in a process that was anyway going to produce the world Jenkins was familiar with. Myself, I see this as doubtful, Britain in the 1920s and 1930s could have gone lots of different ways.
It so happened that Churchill picked the wrong issue when he supported the royal rights of Edward 8th. The natural monarchists were not going to stand up for the right of the king to marry an American woman who was in the middle of discarding her second husband. Divorce in those days carried the same sort of stigma that homosexuality carries today, and the British Queen and presumed mother of a future monarch had to be beyond reproach.
The abdication was a piece of monumental selfishness by a foolish fellow, which however had better results than a respectably married King Edward 8th doing what he’d have seen as his ‘public duty’. His sympathies lay in the fascist camp, and as Duke of Windsor he caused a lot of embarrassment by remaining friendly to Hitler long after most other leading Britons had eaten their words and buried their former opinions.
A lot of Churchill’s former opinions also needed to be buried, and not just his friendship with Mussolini. The Churchill you didn’t know (Guardian, 28th November) misses the Mussolini connection, but gives some useful quotes about Churchill’s other true views:
“I do not admit… that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America, or the black people of Australia… by the fact that a stronger race, a higher grade race… has come in and taken its place.” (Churchill to Palestine Royal Commission, 1937)
“The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the feeble-minded and insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate… I feel that the source from which the stream of madness is fed should be cut off and sealed up before another year has passed.” (Churchill to Asquith, 1910)
“I do not understand the squeamishness about the use of gas. I am strongly in favour of using poisonous gas against uncivilised tribes.”
The Churchill you didn’t know fails to point out that when Saddam Hussein gassed the Kurds, he was following British precedent in bombing them. (And Evelyn Waugh warmly endorsed the Italian use of poison gas in their conquest of Abyssinia, which repelled even hardened imperialists.) It correctly includes Churchill’s well-known remarks about Ghandi as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer”. But in the same 1931 speech he says:
“The Indian Congress and other elements in this agitation represent neither the numbers, the strength nor the virtue of the Indian people. They merely represent those Indians who have acquired a veneer of Western civilisation, and have read all those books about democracy which Europe is now beginning increasingly to discard.”
If he isn’t saying that democracy is out of date, then just what is he saying? Churchill admired Mussolini, and was later to admire Stalin. He operated within a democracy and never saw any good reason to wish it overthrown. He told the voters the things they wanted to hear. But he also regretted the loss of the pre-1914 system of an oligarchy treated with respect by voters who were mostly middle-class or respectable working class.
Most successful dictators come from the military or from the left, two areas where you learn the different between social conventions and social realities. In Britain the elements never quite gelled as a recognisable fascism, though they came close. I’d credit a lot to the mixture of toughness and moderation shown by Baldwin as leader of the Tory party, and to a British political system that allowed Prime Ministers to be real leaders.
A lot depends on whether the leader of a democracy is allowed to lead. Adenauer in Weimar Germany remained as mayor of Cologne, sensibly refusing to try to be Chancellor in the weak Weimar Republic, which had been treated as a lackey and victim by the Western powers. Only in the very different circumstance of West Germany in 1949 did Adenauer show his effectiveness, in a government that Britain and America were then determined to support.
In Britain in the 1930s, you had a party system strong enough to keep government coherent. The sort of crisis that might have swept Churchill to power never happened in peacetime.
Very interesting of course Churchill came from the English class system where birth mattered. Where as today money matters more.
In the West today, a Neo-Bolshevik aristocracy has emerged, where birth really does matter.
Dear Gwydion Williams,
This is an absolutely smashing essay. I am currently in the process of preparing to write a senior thesis on Fascism in the early 20th century, and this piece provides me not only with another perspective, but ever-valuable primary source quotes – the backbone of good historical work. Thank you for writing this
Churchill praised Hitler as late as 1937.
Shooting strikers – Churchill did at Llanelli, not at Tonypandy – was not unknown in Britain – another Liberal Home Secretary – Asquith, later PM – had done it at Featherstone Colliery in the 1890’s. Also, I have looked in vain for any protest by the Labour Party about Churchill’s behaviour. All this “maverick outsider” malarkey is guff – he was a mainstream member of our ruling class, who occasionally backed the wrong horse.
Churchill was correct to support Franco and Mussolini.
Because he was close to fascism himself?