As one of the most accomplished and respected statesmen in the history of the United Kingdom, Winston Churchill cut his teeth in politics at the tender age of 25, right after an illustrious career in the military.
In this article, we take a look at the early years of his political career, from his time as a Member of Parliament in Oldham, all the way to his rise as a Cabinet official.
Cutting His Teeth In Parliament
After the heroic victory of British forces in South Africa during the Second Boer War, Winston Churchill came home to Southampton in July of 1900. Renting a flat in London’s Mayfair, Churchill would begin a six-year campaign to affect change in British politics. After hiring a private secretary, he stood as a Conservative candidate for the Oldham seat during the 1900 General Election. He secured a narrow victory and was now a Member of Parliament at the age of 25.
Because Members of Parliament were not given living wages, Churchill embarked on a speaking tour to talk about his experiences in South Africa. After a successful run in Britain in October and November of 1900, he crossed the pond and arrived in the United States. His first lecture in America was introduced by esteemed writer Samuel Clemens, more popularly known by his pen name, Mark Twain.
During his time in America, he met with then-President William McKinley and then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt. After a brief stint touring the eastern coast of the US, he went over to Canada and toured there extensively. By spring of 1901, he concluded his speaking engagement after lectures in Madrid, Gibraltar, and Paris. Arriving back in England, Churchill made his maiden speech at the House of Commons in February of 1901, where it was met with thunderous applause.
During his time as a Member of Parliament, he allied himself with a Hughligans, a Conservative group. Despite his alliances, Churchill was quite critical of the Conservative government on a wide variety of issues, chief of which was his condemnation of the British government’s decision to execute a Boer military commandant. But his voice of dissent was, ironically, one of the things that he was prized for: as a vocal critic on the level of public expenditure, Prime Minister Arthur Balfour tasked the young Churchill to study the expenditure levels in a parliamentary select committee.
While in this committee, Churchill made known his opposition against an increase in army funding, instead arguing that additional funds be diverted to the navy. This opinion was taken against him by the Conservatives, although it was very well-received by the Liberals, something that upset his Conservative allies. Overtime, Churchill would further socialize with senior Liberal MP’s, particularly H.H. Asquith, a known Liberal Imperialist. It was during this time that Churchill “drifted steadily to the left”, privately considering “the gradual creation by an evolutionary process of a Democratic or Progressive wing to the Conservative Party”. This has been interpreted to be Churchill’s desire to create a “Central Party” that would unite the most brilliant minds from both Conservatives and Liberals.
As time went on, Churchill voted with the Liberal opposition against government more frequently, siding with the left on key issues, such as backing the Liberal vote of censure against the government’s use of indentured Chinese laborers in South Africa, as well as voting in favor of a bill introduced by the Liberals to restore legal rights to trade unions.
However, Churchill’s support of Liberal policies weren’t absolute: in May of 1903, Liberal Unionist MP Chamberlain called for a tariff on goods imported to the Empire from outside, a move that Churchill opposed on the grounds that he believed it to be economic protectionism. He furthered his “sober admiration” of the “principles of Free Trade” by becoming a founding member of the Free Food League, an anti-protectionist group founded in July of that same year. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Balfour’s government soon sided with the Liberal MP’s protectionist tariffs and signed it into legislature.
His staunch criticism of the Balfour government, imperial protectionism, as well as a letter of support he sent to a Liberal MP candidate in Ludlow drew the ire of his Conservative peers, so much so that on December of 1903, the Oldham Conservative Association withdrew their support of Churchill’s candidature in the upcoming election. In fact, as a solid show of their displeasure against the young MP, Balfour and the Conservative front bench walked out on one of Churchill’s speeches at the House of Commons, with Winston describing it as a “very unpleasant and disconcerting demonstration”.
This didn’t stop Churchill from upholding his values, however; in May of that same year, he again expressed his opposition to a proposed bill that was designed to curb Jewish migration into the British Isles. Arguing that the bill would “appeal to insular prejudice against foreigners, to racial prejudice against Jews, and to labour prejudice against competition”, Churchill continued his desire to remain practicing what he called “the old tolerant and generous practice of free entry and asylum to which this country has so long adhered and from which it has so greatly gained.”
His opposition against the Conservatives finally culminated on May 31, 1904, when he “crossed the floor, effectively defecting to the Liberal Party at the House of Commons.
Serving the State as a Cabinet Official
Crossing the floor proved to be a wise move for the young Churchill when, in December of 1904, Prime Minister Balfour resigned, prompting His Royal Highness King Edward VII to invite Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the leader of the Liberal Party, to form a new government under His name. In January 1906, Campbell-Bannerman called for a general election, in the hopes of securing a working majority in the House of Commons. This, too, was a wise choice: the Liberals won 337 seats, as opposed to the Conservatives’ 157, providing the left with that ‘working majority’ Campbell-Bannerman was gunning for.
For his part, Churchill once again became a Member of Parliament after standing for the Manchester North West seat on the invitation of the Manchester Liberals. Churchill one with a majority of 1241. On that same month, Churchill published his father’s biography, a project he had labored over for the past several years. For this, he received an advance payment of £8,000, then the highest ever amount paid for a political biography in the country. At the same time, a biography of Churchill himself was released, written by Liberal Alexander MacCallum Scott.
Within this new government, Churchill distinguished himself as the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonial Office, a position that Churchill himself requested. Working under Secretary of State for the Colonies Victor Bruce, 9th Earl of Elgin, Churchill took Edward Marsh as his secretary, a position Marsh will hold for 25 years. As a junior minister, Churchill was tasked with drafting a working constitution for the Transvaal, an area Churchill is intimately familiar with thanks to his time in the South African Light Horse Regiment.
By 1906, Churchill was helping oversee the formation of a government in the Orange Free State, as well as ensuring the equal treatment of both British and Boer citizens. During this time, Churchill also pioneered the step-by-step phase out of indentured Chinese laborers in South Africa, in the hopes that a gradual process would be much for favorable to the colonists, while easing them and their economy into a norm without the Chinese laborers. Churchill also used his position to call out other European settlers in the African continent, complaining of their “disgusting butchery of the natives” after Zulu launched the Bambatha Rebellion in Natal.
Churchill’s political career spans almost 60 years, more than half of the 20th century. His contributions to the country, and indeed, the world, are almost immeasurable.