Winston

Throughout Britain’s long and chequered history, it has acquired a great deal of heroes, names that have rumbled down the ages. The likes of Boudicca, Alfred the Great and Queen Elizabeth I have (rightly or otherwise) cemented their place in the folklore and culture of our little island- but one stands head and shoulders above all of them. To the eyes of the general public, he is a hero unlike any that our country has produced before or since; he has been voted numerous times as the greatest ever Briton and his name looks set to still be revered centuries from now. I am talking, of course, about Sir Winston Churchill.

Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born to an aristocratic family in Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire (the name comes from his ancestor John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough, and his famous victory at the Battle of Blenheim in 1704) and, as was fairly customary among his class of people at the time, became an officer in the British Army. After serving in Cuba, India, Sudan and South Africa, he turned his attention to politics and became the MP for Oldham in the 1900 general election. It was not a successful tenure, ending four years later when he switched from the Conservative to Liberal parties, but during his time in office a successful speaking tour of the USA not only brought in some much-needed cash (by both Parliamentary and aristocratic standards, Churchill was not a rich man) and demonstrated his superlative ability as a charismatic, powerful orator and public speaker. In 1906 he stood for Parliament again, won the seat, and within two years was promoted to the cabinet of Herbert Asquith. Most of this period of his career, in which he did some of his most significant work in the domestic sphere of government, was spent in the shadow of the political giant of the day, David Lloyd George (who would later go on to redefine the relationship between the state and its people and lead Britain through the second half of WWI), and Churchill’s reputation wouldn’t really start to get going until the onset of the First World War.

Following his somewhat bizarre decision to turn up in Belgium and offer to personally take command of the battle currently raging between the British and German forces, Churchill went back to Britain and actually started doing his job as First Lord of the Admiralty, a job he had acquired in 1911. However, he was forced out of the job within a year after masterminding the ill thought-out and generally disastrous Gallipoli landings. The idea was that, if the British could make a breakthrough in the Balkans, they might be able to force Germany to fight on a third front (even though they had no spare men with which to do so) or else get supplies through to their Russian Allies in the east (even though they had no spare supplies to send). To this end, a group of mostly Australian & New Zealander soldiers (ANZACS) were ordered to land at and attack Gallipoli in Turkey, in the middle of the Mediterranean summer, without any landing craft or maps, and with the entire Turkish army aware they were coming thanks to the small clue of a week’s incessant shelling of the coastline. Utterly exposed and with nowhere to run, the Allies never made it beyond ‘Cape Helles’ in eight months of fighting, and finally retreated at the expense of over 40,000 lives and the Eric Bogle song ‘The Band Played Waltzing Matilda’.

Churchill’s career was at a nadir; the Conservatives hated him for joining the Liberals, the Gallipoli campaign had caused the public to lose all faith in the Liberal party and the last ever Liberal government was dissolved in 1916 (Lloyd George, a Liberal, headed up a coalition government until the end of the war, but much of his support came from Conservatives and the Liberal party fell to pieces around him after it). It didn’t get much better after the war; Churchill was a vehement warmonger, advocating military intervention in Russia (against the Bolsheviks, which in turn lead to a great deal of resentment between the two nations thereafter) and Iraq whilst the rest of the world had decided that, after the bloodiest and most destructive war in western history, the last thing they needed was another one. He soon lost his seat in Parliament, returned to the Conservatives in 1925 with his tail between his legs, became Chancellor, ruined the country’s economy in a disastrous attempt to return to the gold standard, suggested that striking miners be machine gunned during the ’26 general strike, made several impassioned speeches praising Italian dictator Bennito Mussolini, was dropped from the cabinet and spent the early 1930s vehemently arguing against Indian independence, saying “Gandhi-ism… will have to be grappled with and crushed”. Yes, that was Mahatma Gandhi he was talking about.

From about 1915 to 1935, therefore, the career of Winston Churchill was little more than a long string of failures and statements that, were they made today, would probably get you lynched by a rampaging mob of cardiganed liberals; in the early 1930s he (as well as standing up to Gandhi) was a supporter of General Franco, the Japanese invasion of China (in which some of the worst atrocities in the history of warfare were committed) and even (in 1935) Adolf Hitler, despite disapproving of his methods. Churchill was an impassioned opponent of socialism wherever he saw it, and went to outrageous extremes when fighting against it; if he had died then and there, history would have only remembered him as a raving, possibly fascist and almost certainly racist nutter whose only significant political contribution was Gallipoli. Which makes what happened next all the more amazing.

Europe in the 1930s was still gripped with fear at the prospect of another war, and as Germany under Hitler’s rule began to rearm and expand (totally counter to the conditions made in the Treaty of Versailles) most European nations were happy to stick to a policy of appeasement- which basically amounted to letting Germany do whatever they wanted in the desperate pursuit of not having to fight them. Churchill was one of the few ministers opposed to this policy, arguing from as early as 1935 that something had to be done to prevent German rearmament whilst being consistently ignored as the aforementioned raving nutter. However, the issue grew steadily in importance as his dire warnings as to the effects of German rearmament started to come true; the Third Reich first occupied the demilitarised Rhineland zone, then took control of Austria, and then the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia. After this latest bit of military action, Neville Chamberlain went to meet with Hitler, returning with the famous bit of paper in which Hitler had promised that he had no further territorial ambitions in Europe. Six months later, the rest of Czechoslovakia came under German control and British rearmament started in earnest. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939,  Britain was finally dragged into war. It would prove to be Winston Churchill’s finest hour…

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Connections

History is a funny old business; an endless mix of overlapping threads, intermingling stories and repeating patterns that makes fascinating study for anyone who knows where to look. However, the part of it that I enjoy most involves taking the longitudinal view on things, linking two seemingly innocuous, or at least totally unrelated, events and following the trail of breadcrumbs that allow the two to connect. Things get even more interesting when the relationship is causal, so today I am going to follow the trail of one of my favourite little stories; how a single storm was, in the long run, responsible for the Industrial revolution. Especially surprising given that the storm in question occurred in 1064.

This particular storm occurred in the English Channel, and doubtless blew many ships off course, including one that had left from the English port of Bosham (opposite the Isle of Wight). Records don’t say why the ship was making its journey, but what was definitely significant was its passenger; Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex and possibly the most powerful person in the country after King Edward the Confessor. He landed (although that might be overstating the dignity and intention of the process) at Ponthieu, in northern France, and was captured by the local count, who subsequently turned him over to his liege when he, with his famed temper, heard of his visitor: the liege in question was Duke William of Normandy, or ‘William the Bastard’ as he was also known (he was the illegitimate son of the old duke and a tanner). Harold’s next move was (apparently) to accompany his captor to a battle just up the road in Brittany. He then tried to negotiate his freedom, which William accepted, on the condition that he swear an oath to him that, were the childless King Edward to die, he would support William’s claim to the throne (England at the time operated a sort of elective monarchy, where prospective candidates were chosen by a council of nobles known as the Witengamot). According to the Bayeux tapestry, Harold took this oath and left France; but two years later King Edward fell into a coma. With his last moment of consciousness before what was surely an unpleasant death, he apparently gestured to Harold, standing by his bedside. This was taken by Harold, and the Witengamot, as a sign of appointing a successor, and Harold accepted the throne. This understandably infuriated William, who considered this a violation of his oath, and subsequently invaded England. His timing of this coincided with another distant cousin, Harald Hardrada of Norway, deciding to push his claim to the throne, and in the resulting chaos William came to the fore. He became William the Conqueror, and the Normans controlled England for the next several hundred years.

One of the things that the Norman’s brought with them was a newfound view on religion; England was already Christian, but their respective Church’s views on certain subjects differed slightly. One such subject was serfdom, a form of slavery that was very popular among the feudal lords of the time. Serfs were basically slaves, in that they could be bought or sold as commodities; they were legally bound to the land they worked, and were thus traded and owned by the feudal lords who owned the land. In some countries, it was not unusual for one’s lord to change overnight after a drunken card game; Leo Tolstoy lost most of his land in just such an incident, but that’s another story. It was not a good existence for a serf, completely devoid of any form of freedom, but for a feudal lord it was great; cheap, guaranteed labour and thus income from one’s land, and no real risks concerned. However the Norman church’s interpretation of Christianity was morally opposed to the idea, and began to trade serfs for free peasants as a form of agricultural labour. A free peasant was not tied to the land but rented it from his liege, along with the right to use various pieces of land & equipment; the feudal lord still had income, but if he wanted goods from his land he had to pay for it from his peasants, and there were limits on the control he had over them. If a peasant so wished, he could pack up and move to London or wherever, or to join a ship; whatever he wanted in his quest to make his fortune. The vast majority were never faced with this choice as a reasonable idea, but the principle was important- a later Norman king, Henry I, also reorganised the legal system and introduced the role of sheriff, producing a society based around something almost resembling justice.

[It is worth noting that the very last serfs were not freed until the reign of Queen Elizabeth in the 1500s, and that subsequent British generations during the 18th century had absolutely no problem with trading in black slaves, but they justified that partly by never actually seeing the slaves and partly by taking the view that the black people weren’t proper humans anyway. We can be disgusting creatures]

A third Norman king further enhanced this concept of justice, even if completely by accident. King John was the younger brother of inexplicable national hero King Richard I, aka Richard the Lionheart or Couer-de-Lion (seriously, the dude was a Frenchman who visited England twice, both to raise money for his military campaigns, and later levied the largest ransom in history on his people when he had to be released by the Holy Roman Emperor- how he came to national prominence I will never know), and John was unpopular. He levied heavy taxes on his people to pay for costly and invariably unsuccessful military campaigns, and whilst various incarnations of Robin Hood have made him seem a lot more malevolent than he probably was, he was not a good King. He was also harsh to his people, and successfully pissed off peasant and noble alike; eventually the Norman Barons presented John with an ultimatum to limit his power, and restore some of theirs. However, the wording of the document also granted some basic and fundamental rights to the common people as well; this document was known as the Magna Carta; one of the most important legal documents in history, and arguably the cornerstone in the temple of western democracy.

The long-term ramifacations of this were huge; numerous wars were fought over the power it gave the nobility in the coming centuries, and Henry II (9 years old when he took over from father John) was eventually forced to call the first parliament; which, crucially, featured both barons (the noblemen, in what would soon become the House of Lords) and burghers (administrative leaders and representatives of the cities & commoners, in the House of Commons). The Black Death (which wiped out most of the peasant population and thus raised the value of the few who were left) greatly increased the value and importance of peasants across Europe for purely economic reasons for a few years, but over the next few centuries multiple generations of kings in several countries would slowly return things to the old ways, with them on top and their nobles kept subservient. In countries such as France, a nobleman got himself power, rank, influence and wealth by getting into bed with the king (in the cases of some ambitious noblewomen, quite literally); but in England the existence of a Parliament meant that no matter how much the king’s power increased through the reign of Plantagenets, Tudors and Stuarts, the gentry had some form of national power and community- and that the people were, to some nominal degree, represented as well. This in turn meant that it became not uncommon for the nobility and high-ranking (or at least rich) ordinary people to come into contact, and created a very fluid class system. Whilst in France a middle class businessman was looked on with disdain by the lords, in Britain he would be far more likely to be offered a peerage; nowadays the practice is considered undemocratic, but this was the cutting edge of societal advancement several hundred years ago. It was this ‘lower’ class of gentry, comprising the likes of John Hampden and Oliver Cromwell, who would precipitate the English Civil War as King Charles I tried to rule without Parliament altogether (as opposed to his predecessors  who merely chose to not listen to them a lot of the time); when the monarchy was restored (after several years of bloodshed and puritan brutality at the hands of Cromwell’s New Model Army, and a seemingly paradoxical few decades spent with Cromwell governing with only a token parliament, when he used them at all), parliament was the political force in Britain. When James II once again tried his dad’s tactic of proclaiming himself god-sent ruler whom all should respect unquestioningly, Parliament’s response was to invite the Dutch King William of Orange over to replace James and become William III, which he duly did. Throughout the reign of the remaining Stuarts and the Hanoverian monarchs (George I to Queen Victoria), the power of the monarch became steadily more and more ceremonial as the two key political factions of the day, the Whigs (later to become the Liberal, and subsequently Liberal Democrat, Party) and the Tories (as today’s Conservative Party is still known) slugged it out for control of Parliament, the newly created role of ‘First Lord of the Treasury’ (or Prime Minister- the job wasn’t regularly selected from among the commons for another century or so) and, eventually, the country. This brought political stability, and it brought about the foundations of modern democracy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself; what does this have to do with the Industrial Revolution? Well, we can partly blame the political and financial stability at the time, enabling corporations and big business to operate simply and effectively among ambitious individuals wishing to exploit potential; but I think that the key reason it occurred has to do with those ambitious people themselves. In Eastern Europe & Russia, in particular, there were two classes of people; nobility who were simply content to scheme and enjoy their power, and the masses of illiterate serfs. In most of Western Europe, there was a growing middle class, but the monarchy and nobility were united in keeping them under their thumb and preventing them from making any serious impact on the world. The French got a bloodthirsty revolution and political chaos as an added bonus, whilst the Russians waited for another century to finally get sufficiently pissed of at the Czar to precipitate a communist revolution. In Britain, however, there were no serfs, and corporations were built from the middle classes. These people’s primary concerns wasn’t rank or long-running feuds, disagreements over land or who was sleeping with the king; they wanted to make money, and would do so by every means at their disposal. This was an environment ripe for entrepreneurism, for an idea worth thousands to take the world by storm, and they did so with relish. The likes of Arkwright, Stephenson and Watt came from the middle classes and were backed by middle class industry, and the rest of Britain came along for the ride as Britain’s coincidentally vast coal resources were put to good use in powering the change. Per capita income, population and living standards all soared, and despite the horrors that an age of unregulated industry certainly wrought on its populace, it was this period of unprecedented change that was the vital step in the formation of the world as we know it today. And to think that all this can be traced, through centuries of political change, to the genes of uselessness that would later become King John crossing the channel after one unfortunate shipwreck…

And apologies, this post ended up being a lot longer than I intended it to be