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Sir Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill

Political Career

Early Government Posts

Churchill was elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1900, but he subsequently switched to the Liberal party and was appointed undersecretary for the colonies in the cabinet of Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman. Under Asquith, he was initially (1908–10) president of the Board of Trade, then home secretary (1910–11), and championed innovative labor exchange and old-age pension acts. As first lord of the admiralty (1911), he presided over the naval expansion that preceded World War I.

Discredited by the failure of the Dardanelles expedition, which he had championed, Churchill lost (1915) his admiralty post and served on the front lines in France. Returning to office under Lloyd George, he served as minister of munitions (1917) and secretary of state for war and for air (1918–21). As colonial secretary (1921–22), he helped negotiate the treaty that set up the Irish Free State.

After two defeats at the polls he returned to the House of Commons, as a Constitutionalist, and became (1924–29) chancellor of the exchequer in Stanley Baldwin's Conservative government. As an advocate of laissez-faire economics, he was strongly criticized by John Maynard Keynes. Churchill was not a financial innovator; he basically followed conventional advice from his colleagues. Nevertheless, Churchill's decision to return the country to the prewar gold standard increased unemployment and was a cause of the general strike of 1926. He advocated aggressive action to end the strike, and thus earned the lasting distrust of the labor movement.

World War II

Out of office from 1929 to 1939, Churchill wrote and remained in the public eye with his support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis of 1936 and with his extreme distaste for the actions of Mohandas Gandhi and his vehement opposition to the Indian nationalist movement. He also issued warnings of the threat from Nazi Germany that went unheeded, in part because of his past political and military misjudgments. When World War II broke out (Sept., 1939), Neville Chamberlain appointed him first lord of the admiralty. The following May, when Chamberlain was forced to resign, Churchill became prime minister.

Churchill was a great orator, and his grand rhetorical style was particularly suited to the terrible struggle England faced. His energy, his will to fight on whatever the cost, and his stubborn public refusal to make peace until Adolf Hitler was crushed were crucial in rallying and maintaining British resistance to Germany during the grim years from 1940 to 1942. He met President Franklin Roosevelt at sea (see Atlantic Charter) before the entry of the United States into the war, twice addressed the U.S. Congress (Dec., 1941; May, 1942), twice went to Moscow (Aug., 1942; May, 1944), visited battle fronts, and attended a long series of international conferences (see Casablanca Conference; Quebec Conference; Cairo Conference; Tehran Conference; Yalta Conference; Potsdam Conference).

The Postwar Period

The British nation supported the vigorous program of Churchill's coalition cabinet until after the surrender of Germany. Then in July, 1945, Britain's desire for rapid social reform led to a Labour electoral victory, and Churchill became leader of the opposition. In 1946, on a visit to the United States, he made a controversial speech at Fulton, Mo., in which he warned of the expansive tendencies of the USSR (he had distrusted the Soviet government since its inception, when he had been a leading advocate of Western intervention to overthrow it) and coined the expression "Iron Curtain." Nonetheless, in the early 1950s he attempted to reach some sort of understanding with Stalin, but was unsuccessful largely due to the strong anti-Communist stance of the United States.

As prime minister again from 1951 until his resignation in 1955, he ended nationalization of the steel and auto industries but maintained most other socialist measures instituted by the Labour government. In 1953 Churchill was knighted, and awarded the 1953 Nobel Prize in Literature for his writing and oratory. His biographical and autobiographical works include Lord Randolph Churchill (1906), My Early Life: A Roving Commission (1930), and the study of his ancestor Marlborough (4 vol., 1933–38). World Crisis (4 vol., 1923–29) is his account of World War I. The Second World War (6 vol., 1948–53) was followed by A History of the English-speaking Peoples (4 vol., 1956–58). Churchill retained a seat in Parliament until 1964. He refused a peerage, but his widow, Clementine Ogilvy Hozier (married 1908), accepted one in 1965 for her charitable work.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

See more Encyclopedia articles on: British and Irish History: Biographies


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