After I posted “Churchill on the Stimulus Package” last Spring, I was asked if Churchill, who said he opposed socialism, was in fact more of a socialist than he cared to admit. For example, he was one of the architects of the British Welfare State early in the 20th century.
To the many appreciations of Churchill’s career let us add that he was (which is not often recognized) a serious political theorist, who learned from experience and, as William Manchester wrote, “usually improved as he went along.” I asked President Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College to respond to this question:
Churchill was a political thinker. He understood that the first division in politics is between the few rich and the many poor. He looked for a way to ameliorate that division, and to make the society stable. The United States provided a model for much of this.
Churchill was then pursuing justice, the arrangement of goods, offices, and honors according to the merit of those receiving them, and the interest of the State. He was profoundly for a liberal society, in which the economy is driven by private enterprise, and in which money is allowed to fructify, as he quoted John Morley, in the pockets of the people. The modern world, the world that requires freedom of religion and limited government, can abide no other kind of politics. But this kind of politics is demonstrably vulnerable to war. It is also vulnerable domestically.
If a disaffected majority, necessarily made up of the many who are poor, or relatively poor, expropriate the wealth of the few, it is a tragedy that will destroy justice in the state—even if the poor have a grievance against the rich. Churchill was trying to prevent that. How? There one must understand what he meant by “Constitutionalism.” For Churchill, this is a very rich subject, rather like the writings of James Madison.
He saw the problem of bureaucracy, and of excess by the majority, very clearly from an early day. The problem is more mature now than it was in his time. That is why it is easy for some of Churchill’s solutions to look leftish from our modern vantage point.
The answer, then is that no, he was not a “closet socialist.” He thought socialism, a far milder form than what we know today, incompatible with human liberty and an obsctruction to human progress. The careful study of his complex views will show that above all he regarded liberty as the most important characteristic of a just society.