Churchill, Wells, and Government by “Experts”

Churchill, Wells, and Government by “Experts”

Excerpt­ed from “Churchill and H.G. Wells Debate Gov­ern­ment by Experts,” my essay for the Hills­dale Col­lege Churchill Project. To read the orig­i­nal arti­cle with end­notes, click here. To sub­scribe to week­ly arti­cles from the Churchill Project, click here, scroll to bot­tom, and fill in your email in the box enti­tled “Stay in touch with us.” Your email address is nev­er giv­en out and remains a rid­dle wrapped in a mys­tery inside an enigma.

Churchill to Wells, 1901-1931

Win­ston S. Churchill in 1901. (Wiki­me­dia Commons)

“Change, even for the bet­ter, [man] accepts doubt­ful­ly & thank­less­ly; he knows sci­ence & civil­i­sa­tion will not give him Hap­pi­ness… and he has no inten­tion of putting him­self in the hands of ami­able but piti­less philoso­phers, to be reg­u­lat­ed and informed as if he were a breed of short horns.”  —Win­ston S. Churchill to H.G. Wells, 17 Novem­ber 1901

“Projects undreamed-of by past gen­er­a­tions will absorb our imme­di­ate descen­dants; forces ter­rif­ic and dev­as­tat­ing will be in their hands; com­forts, activ­i­ties, ameni­ties, plea­sures will crowd upon them, but their hearts will ache, their lives will be bar­ren, if they have not a vision above mate­r­i­al things.” —Win­ston S. Churchill, “Fifty Years Hence,” Strand Mag­a­zine, Decem­ber 1931

Clubbable adversaries

Churchill admired the great futur­ist H.G. Wells (1866-1946) as fer­vent­ly as he dis­agreed with him. In youth they argued over the roles of experts in gov­ern­ment. Their debate mir­rors mod­ern argu­ments over Antho­ny Fau­ci and the Reg­u­la­to­ry State. But there is no attempt here to draw com­par­isons. The read­er may decide what lessons the Wells-Churchill dia­logue offers.

The two made con­tact in Novem­ber 1901. Both were by then estab­lished authors. Their rela­tion­ship lapsed dur­ing the First World War, for Wells held Churchill respon­si­ble for the Dar­d­anelles deba­cle. Still, Wells was wel­comed into The Oth­er Club, whose “the pious founder” loved gift­ed literati. 

Wells died in 1946, agree­ing with Churchill about nuclear pro­lif­er­a­tion and West­ern uni­ty. Our focus here, how­ev­er, is their ear­ly debate over gov­ern­ment by experts—when Churchill was only 23 and Wells 35. For Churchill’s and Wells’s lat­er rela­tion­ship, see Fred Glueck­stein, “Great Con­tem­po­raries: Churchill and H.G. Wells, the Two Futur­ists” (2018).

Tory grandee and Fabian socialist

Jonathan Rose offers a com­par­i­son of Churchill and Wells at the time they met:

[Win­wood Reade’s] The Mar­tyr­dom of Man, which looked for­ward to space trav­el and oth­er tech­no­log­i­cal mar­vels… was pro­found­ly inspi­ra­tional for both… even if they drew dif­fer­ent lessons from it. They were both pro­gres­sives but they had diver­gent con­cep­tions of progress. For H.G. Wells, who would join the Fabi­an Social­ists, it meant rig­or­ous sci­en­tif­ic plan­ning by tech­nocrats. For Churchill it meant mud­dling through by aris­to­crats, and he was far less will­ing to sac­ri­fice human free­dom for the sake of a bet­ter future.

Their chief cor­re­spon­dence con­cerns Wells’s books. In 1899, Wells’s When the Sleep­er Wakes and Churchill’s Savro­la both con­cerned demo­c­ra­t­ic rev­o­lu­tions, although the for­mer was set 200 years in the future, while Churchill focused on the present. But there is no indi­ca­tion in their let­ters that Wells had even read Savro­la, much less cri­tiqued it. Churchill, by con­trast, gob­bled every­thing of Wells that he could find.

“Good Lord deliver us” 

In late 1901, the pub­lish­er sent Churchill a pre-pub­li­ca­tion copy of Antic­i­pa­tions, anoth­er Wells vision of the future. It antic­i­pat­ed a republic—later a “world state”—governed by “capa­ble, ratio­nal men.” Their dif­fer­ences are inter­est­ing giv­en the world we live in today, which in many ways seems to be gov­erned by experts.  

The pre­co­cious young Win­ston declared there was much in Antic­i­pa­tions “which I can­not accept”: 

Noth­ing would be more fatal than for the gov­ern­ment of States to get into the hands of the experts. Expert knowl­edge is lim­it­ed knowl­edge: and the unlim­it­ed igno­rance of the plain man who knows only what hurts is a safer guide, than any vig­or­ous direc­tion of a spe­cialised char­ac­ter. Why should you assume that all except doc­tors, engi­neers etc., are drones or worse? 

To man­age men, to explain dif­fi­cult things to sim­ple peo­ple, to rec­on­cile oppo­site inter­ests, to weigh the evi­dence of dis­put­ing experts, to deal with the clam­orous emer­gency of the hour; are not these things in them­selves worth the con­sid­er­a­tion and labour of a life­time? If the Ruler is to be an expert in any­thing he should be an expert in every­thing; and that is plain­ly impos­si­ble. Where­fore I say from the domin­ion of all spe­cial­ists (par­tic­u­lar­ly mil­i­tary spe­cial­ists) good Lord deliv­er us.

“Easy to lead and hard to drive”

Churchill pressed Wells: “Human nature is a much more intractable and mas­ter­ful thing than your spec­u­la­tions admit…. We shall not change so quick­ly as you think.” (His views hadn’t changed 30 years lat­er when he wrote: “It is at once the safe­guard and the glo­ry of mankind that they are easy to lead and hard to drive.”)

 “I too will most hearti­ly join in the ‘God shall deliv­er us,’” replied the not-yet-quite-athe­is­tic Wells. But the lead­ers he envi­sioned would be “edu­cat­ed not trained.” He thought Churchill prej­u­diced by his class:

If you could be trans­port­ed by some mag­ic into the House­hold of your ances­tors of 1800, a week would make you at home with them…. But of the four grand­par­ents who rep­re­sent­ed me in 1800 it’s high­ly prob­a­ble two could not read and that any of them would find me and that I should find them as alien as con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese. I real­ly do not think that your peo­ple who gath­er in great coun­try hous­es real­ize the pace of things.

While valid, this great­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed Churchill. Even then he had a grasp of the prob­lems of ordi­nary peo­ple that would soon dri­ve him to the reform­ing Lib­er­al Par­ty. Nor could Wells quell the younger man’s pas­sion for lib­er­ty. “You must not be too impa­tient with the politi­cian,” Churchill told him. It was a politician’s duty “to pro­tect mil­lions of imper­fect peo­ple who mere­ly wish to remain com­fort­able against those who on the one hand would make them perfect…” 

Bin­go. But 12 decades lat­er, do we still resist those who would make us perfect?

“Big sliders and new fissures”

Wells was not put off by Churchill’s chal­lenges. “To me,” he wrote, “you are a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing and rather ami­able figure…. 

Believ­ing as I do that big slid­ers and new fis­sures are bound to come in the next few years…. I spec­u­late whether you antic­i­pate that when you are 60 you will be in or​ ​upon a Con­ser­v­a­tive Par­ty with a Lib­er­al oppo­si­tion and an Irish Cor­ner in a British or Impe­r­i­al Par­lia­ment and if not—where you expect to be.

Churchill was a Con­ser­v­a­tive at 60, but the oppo­si­tion was by then social­ist, and the “Irish Cor­ner” had van­ished. Nor, at 60, was he where he expect­ed to be.  

Churchill shared Wells’s faith in sci­ence, but he nev­er lost his reser­va­tions about experts. Four months after they met, he declared in Par­lia­ment: “It was a prin­ci­ple of our Con­sti­tu­tion not to employ experts, whether busi­ness men or mil­i­tary men, in the high­est affairs of State.” 

Five months before Wells’s death he reit­er­at­ed: “Expert knowl­edge, how­ev­er indis­pens­able, is no sub­sti­tute for a gen­er­ous and com­pre­hend­ing out­look upon the human sto­ry with all its sad­ness and with all its unquench­able hope.”

Parallel reading

“The Social Dilem­ma and Churchill’s ‘Mass Effects in Mod­ern Life,'” 2021.

“How Churchill Saw the Future: Pre­scient Essays, 1924-1931,” 2018.

One thought on “Churchill, Wells, and Government by “Experts”

  1. Five months before Wells’s death Churchill reit­er­at­ed: “Expert knowl­edge, how­ev­er indis­pens­able, is no sub­sti­tute for a gen­er­ous and com­pre­hend­ing out­look upon the human sto­ry with all its sad­ness and with all its unquench­able hope.” GREAT QUOTE. Of course what Churchill is speak­ing of his not mere­ly infor­ma­tion or tech­nol­o­gy BUT WISDOM.

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