Hillsdale’s Churchill Documents: Harold Wilson, 1951
“Two days earlier I had been a Minister of the Crown, red box and all. Now I was reduced to the position of a messenger between my wife and Winston Churchill, each of whom burst into tears on receipt of a message from the other.” —Harold Wilson
The Hillsdale College Churchill Project is rapidly completing final volumes of Winston S. Churchill, the official biography. (The name is somewhat of a misnomer; no one has ever censored any material.) Suitably, all thirty-one volumes will be complete by June 2019: the 75th Anniversary of D-Day. It will be fifty-six years since Randolph Churchill and his “Young Gentlemen” including Martin Gilbert began their work. Coinciding is a Hillsdale College cruise around Britain. A fitting climacteric.
After World War II, The Churchill Documents offer testimony to Churchill’s vast preoccupations. Volume 22 (August 1945-October 1951, due late 2018) brings the stark realization of a new threat to liberty. Urgent messages flew across the ether between Washington, London, Ottawa, Paris. Speeches were made, partisans quarreled, editorials raged. There were communist incursions in the Balkans. The Red Army stalled on removing its troops from Iran. There was Churchill’s “Iron Curtain” speech at Fulton, a coup in Czechoslovakia. The Berlin Airlift was won, China was lost. War broke out in Korea.
These critical papers, amassed by Sir Martin, represent every day of Churchill’s life. Woven between the weighty issues are lighter interludes. Documents of small importance—except to Churchill, his family, his colleagues, scholars. They round out our picture of a the man in a unique and personal way.
One of these was written by a Labour Member of Parliament. He became Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, KG OBE PC FRS (1916-1995). He served thirty-three years in the Commons. His first cabinet position was the same as Churchill’s: President of the Board of Trade. By canny electioneering, he became prime minister in 1964-70 and 1970-76.
Wilson fancied himself part of the “soft left.” No one could ask for a more partisan advocate. And yet there was this deep collegial respect between him and the veteran Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Churchill.
Early on Wilson supported socialist firebrand Aneurin Bevan, founder of the National Health Service. But in April 1951, the Labour government introduced NHS medical charges to meet the financial demands of the Korean War. In protest, Wilson, Bevan and John Freeman resigned from the government. Churchill, leading the opposition and smelling an election, trumpeted the split. Privately, however, there was this interlude. I post it as bait, for there is much more like it to come in The Churchill Documents. Order them today.
Harold Wilson: Recollection
(A Prime Minister on Prime Ministers, pages 267-68)
Winston Churchill was, above all things, a Parliamentarian. He loved the House, he had dominated it over the years. In its most degenerate days it had refused to listen to his warnings and had treated him with disdain and hostility. His loyalty to Parliament, and his obeisance to the courtesies of an almost forgotten age, caused him to take personal initiatives which the world of today might find it hard to understand.
When Aneurin Bevan and I resigned from the Attlee Government in April 1951, because we could not accept the unrealistic arms policy forced on the Government—and in Bevan’s case its consequences for the National Health Service—Winston came up to us. He expressed sympathy with us: we were facing a situation which had been much familiar to him, though, as he pointed out, we would never be obsecrated as he had been. We had gone out with honour, but, he added with a twinkle in his eye, he and his party would make the most of the situation which resulted.
* * *
That evening Brendan Bracken sought me out. He had been charged, he said, “by the greatest living statesman, for that is what Mr. Churchill is,” to give me a message to convey to my wife. First, Mr. Churchill wanted me to know, he had been “presented” to my wife, otherwise he would not presume to send her a message. The message was that whereas I, as an experienced politician, had taken a step of which he felt free to take such party advantage as was appropriate, his concern was with my wife, an innocent party in these affairs, who would undoubtedly suffer in consequence.
He recalled the number of occasions his wife had suffered as a result of his own political decisions. Would I therefore convey to her his personal sympathy and understanding? Thanking Bracken, I went home about 1 am…. I conveyed the message, which was greeted with gratitude and tears. I was enjoined to express her personal thanks. On leaving home the next morning I was again enjoined to see “the old boy” and make sure I delivered the message.
* * *
In the early evening I saw Winston in the smoke-room. I went up to him and told him I had a message from my wife…. I expressed her thanks. Immediately—and with Winston this was not a rare event—tears flooded down his face, as he expatiated on the way that wives had to suffer for their husbands’ political actions, going on to recall a number of instances over a long life.
When I reached home it was 2 am, but she was awake. I was asked if I had seen the old boy and thanked him. I had, and recounted the interview. She burst into tears, and I was moved to say that whereas two days earlier I had been a Minister of the Crown, red box and all, now I was reduced to the position of a messenger between her and Winston Churchill, each of whom burst into tears on receipt of a message from the other. Of such is the essence of Parliament, or at least of bygone Parliaments, But this was the essential Winston Churchill.
What must strike the reader is this sheer affection between the idealistic socialist and dominant Tory. Would President Trump offer condolences if Senator Schumer resigned? Will Adam Schiff when Paul Ryan leaves as Speaker of the House? Yet as recently as 1981, Tip O’Neill prayed by the bedside of a stricken Ronald Reagan. Politics have changed. Not for the better.
Of course, Churchill was quick to assure Wilson he would take political advantage. And he did. As The Churchill Documents report, he was soon hard at it. Wilson and his colleagues had “rendered a public service,” he said, “by exposing to Parliament the scandalous want of foresight in buying the raw materials upon which our vital rearmament programme depends.”
“Of such is the essence of Parliament,” Harold Wilson mused, “or at least of bygone Parliaments.” And not just Parliaments.
* * *
In his book Lord Wilson also reprised what he said in 1965 after Churchill death. Naturally he remembered that kind action fourteen years before. Politicians today might ponder his sentiments:
For now the noise of hooves thundering across the veldt; the clamour of the hustings in a score of contests; the shots in Sydney Street, the angry guns of Gallipoli, Flanders, Coronel and the Falkland Islands; the sullen feet of marching men in Tonypandy; the urgent warnings of the Nazi threat; the whine of the sirens and the dawn bombardment of the Normandy beaches; all these now are silent. There is a stillness. And in that stillness, echoes and memories.
To each whose life has been touched by Winston Churchill, to each his memory…. Each one of us recalls some little incident—many of us, as in my own case, a kind action, graced with the courtesy of a past generation and going far beyond the normal calls of Parliamentary comradeship. Each of us has his own memory, for in the tumultuous diapason of a world’s tributes, all of us here at least know the epitaph he would have chosen for himself: “He was a good House of Commons man.”