Churchill, Taxes, the War and the Vote

Churchill, Taxes, the War and the Vote

Broad­cast­ing, 1940 (BBC)

Writ­ing in The Inde­pen­dent on April 13th Dominic Law­son, son of Mar­garet Thatcher’s Chan­cel­lor of the Exche­quer, says that “the pub­lic want hon­esty, but not when it comes to their tax­es.” The vot­ers, Law­son argues force­ful­ly, will nev­er undo the gov­ern­ment enti­tle­ments that are bank­rupt­ing mod­ern democ­ra­cies. It is ludi­crous, he adds, for British Con­ser­v­a­tives to deplore the nation­al debt, and then “to pro­pose mea­sures which would do noth­ing to reduce it, but actu­al­ly increase it….as if Win­ston Churchill had declared, ‘I have noth­ing to offer but blood, toil, tears, sweat and tax cuts.’”

My inter­est was piqued when Mr. Law­son ven­tured into his­to­ry: “Indeed, it is an endur­ing myth that even as Prime Min­is­ter dur­ing the war itself, Churchill’s offer of “noth­ing but blood, toil, tears and sweat” was invari­ably wel­come to the British peo­ple. As Angus Calder point­ed out in his icon­o­clas­tic book The People’s War, strikes were com­mon, the gov­ern­ment not espe­cial­ly pop­u­lar, and Churchill him­self an object of much pub­lic disparagement—even if that didn’t find expres­sion in the columns of the news­pa­pers. This pent-up dis­con­tent was one rea­son why the great war leader received an over­whelm­ing rasp­ber­ry from the pub­lic as soon as they had a chance to express their opin­ion at the bal­lot box, in July 1945.”

The last is a gross over­sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. Churchill had his ups and downs in wartime polls, but remained well thought of indi­vid­u­al­ly. The peo­ple didn’t vote Churchill out in 1945; they vot­ed the Con­ser­v­a­tives out, and with con­sid­er­able jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Many actu­al­ly thought they could vote Labour and retain Churchill as Prime Min­is­ter!

On bal­ance, how­ev­er, Mr. Law­son may be right about British atti­tudes when Churchill first spoke as Prime Min­is­ter on 13 May 1940. At the 1988 Bret­ton Woods Churchill Con­fer­ence, Alis­tair Cooke spoke of  grow­ing up in Britain after World War I, con­stant­ly remind­ed of a lost gen­er­a­tion: “The British peo­ple would do any­thing to stop Hitler—except fight him.” Remem­ber too that the applause in the House of Com­mons on was then still loud­er for Cham­ber­lain than for Churchill.

But that was on 13 May, and Churchill’s speech­es quick­ly turned atti­tudes around. By June, after the French deba­cle and Dunkirk, there was a dif­fer­ent mood. Churchill’s post­war body­guard, Ronald Gold­ing, then an RAF Squadron Leader, recalled: “After his ‘fight on the beach­es’ speech [4 June 1940], we want­ed the Ger­mans to come.”

Law­son also mis­rep­re­sents Churchill’s pro­pos­als for fran­chise reform:

Churchill, admit­ted­ly, had nev­er been com­plete­ly per­suad­ed of the ben­e­fits of the uni­ver­sal fran­chise: in 1930 he had pub­lished an essay—Parliamentary Gov­ern­ment and the Eco­nom­ic Problem—which advo­cat­ed its aban­don­ment and a return to a prop­er­ty fran­chise (com­bined with pro­por­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tion). I imag­ine that if he were dropped into our present predica­ment, as some polit­i­cal time-trav­eller, Churchill would argue that it is next to impos­si­ble to per­suade a major­i­ty of the need for sharp pub­lic expen­di­ture cuts, when mil­lions of house­holds would feel that such a pol­i­cy would cost them more in ben­e­fits than they would ever get back by way of a reduc­tion in tax­es.

(Coin­ci­den­tal­ly, Finest Hour 146 con­tained a sim­i­lar Churchill arti­cle from 1934, “Restor­ing the Lost Glo­ry of Democ­ra­cy.”)

Churchill fre­quent­ly float­ed “tri­al bal­loons,” think­ing out loud about the nature of democ­ra­cy. In both of these arti­cles, he did pon­der the ben­e­fits of a “bonus vote” for what he vague­ly defined as the “more respon­si­ble” lev­el of cit­i­zens; but it is salient to note that he nev­er led a move­ment or tabled a bill for such a reform. More­over, nei­ther there nor in “Par­lia­men­tary Gov­ern­ment and the Eco­nom­ic Prob­lem” (reprint­ed in Thoughts and Adven­tures), did Churchill advo­cate “aban­don­ment” of the uni­ver­sal vote or a “return to a prop­er­ty fran­chise.”

What he did sug­gest, in the midst of the Depres­sion, was

…an Eco­nom­ic sub-Par­lia­ment debat­ing day after day with fear­less detach­ment from pub­lic opin­ion all the most dis­put­ed ques­tions of Finance and Trade, and reach­ing con­clu­sions by vot­ing, would be an inno­va­tion, but an inno­va­tion eas­i­ly to be embraced by our flex­i­ble con­sti­tu­tion­al sys­tem. I see no rea­son why the polit­i­cal Par­lia­ment should not choose, in pro­por­tion to its par­ty group­ings, a sub­or­di­nate Eco­nom­ic Par­lia­ment of, say, one-fifth of its num­bers and com­posed of per­sons of high tech­ni­cal and busi­ness qual­i­fi­ca­tions.*

Churchill argued that the House of Com­mons had the adapt­abil­i­ty to orga­nize this form of delib­er­a­tion, but it is impor­tant to dis­tin­guish that he did see such a “sub-Par­lia­ment” as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the elec­torate. Today, we see much less demo­c­ra­t­ic forms in the boards or indi­vid­u­als (“Czars” in cur­rent Amer­i­can polit­i­cal par­lance) who are unelect­ed, yet pos­sess some­times ple­nary pow­er. There is room to argue that Churchill would have been opposed to these. Cer­tain­ly he nev­er favored the “aban­don­ment of Par­lia­men­tary Gov­ern­ment.” Indeed quite the oppo­site, as he wrote in 1930:

I see the Hous­es of Parliament—and par­tic­u­lar­ly the House of Commons—alone among the sen­ates and cham­bers of the world a liv­ing and rul­ing enti­ty; the swift vehi­cle of pub­lic opin­ion; the arena—perhaps for­tu­nate­ly the padded arena—of the inevitable class and social con­flict; the Col­lege from which the Min­is­ters of State are cho­sen, and hith­er­to the sol­id and unfail­ing foun­da­tion of the exec­u­tive pow­er. I regard these par­lia­men­tary insti­tu­tions as pre­cious to us almost beyond com­pare. They seem to give by far the clos­est asso­ci­a­tion yet achieved between the life of the peo­ple and the action of the State. They pos­sess appar­ent­ly an unlim­it­ed capac­i­ty of adap­tive­ness, and they stand an effec­tive buffer against every form of rev­o­lu­tion­ary or reac­tionary vio­lence. It should be the duty of faith­ful sub­jects to pre­serve these insti­tu­tions in their healthy vigour, to guard them against the encroach­ment of exter­nal forces, and to reviv­i­fy them from one gen­er­a­tion to anoth­er from the springs of nation­al tal­ent, inter­est, and esteem.**

* Win­ston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adven­tures, James W. Muller, ed. (Wilm­ing­ton, Delaware: ISI Books, 2009), 255.

** Ibid., 246-47.

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