CHURCHILL’S SCOTTISH LEGACY
Fifty-seven years ago, the state funeral of Winston Churchill took place in St Paul’s Cathedral, London. On 30th January 1965, the internment was covered live by the BBC and seen around the world by an estimated 350 million people. Churchill had died, aged 90, on 24th January and the Queen had decreed that his body should lie in state in Westminster Hall for three days. Richard Dimbleby portrayed the four-hour procession and service in sombre tones, as the cortege went from Westminster Hall to St Paul’s, before the former prime minister’s coffin was transported along the River Thames to Waterloo Station and onward by train to his final resting place in St Martin's Churchyard at Bladon. It was the largest state funeral in history, befitting the man believed to have Britain’s greatest prime minister of the twentieth century.
In a letter to her father in his final years, Lady Mary Soames, Churchill’s youngest daughter, told the war-time prime minister: “I owe you what every English man, woman and child does—liberty itself.” She might have included Scotland in that remark, as Churchill’s links to our nation were lifelong and intense, from his time on the Western Front in 1915 commanding the 6th Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, to the fourteen years he served as Liberal MP for Dundee from 1908 to 1922. In this centenary year of his Dundee defeat by the prohibitionist councillor Edwin Scrymgeour, it is worth reflecting why Churchill’s Scottish connections have been virtually forgotten. A single bronze plaque on a wall at the corner of Nethergate and Marketgait in Dundee, is the only memento of his time as the city’s Westminster MP. The plaque has been vandalised.
It was Winston Churchill who famously said: “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.” Yet he has been traduced by successive generations of Scottish nationalists and socialists. Repeated lies and myths are spread on social media. A favourite cybernat invention claims that Churchill sent tanks and troops into Glasgow’s George Square in January 1919 to attack striking workers. A photograph of a tank in a crowded George Square has been used as backup for this fake news. In fact, the photo was taken a year earlier at a highly successful rally to raise funds for the war effort. This blatant falsehood even found its way into a history exam in Scottish schools in 2020, calling into question the SNP government’s anti-English bias in the Scottish education curriculum. Churchill, as Minister of War, did indeed attend the cabinet meeting in London when a request from the Sheriff of Lanarkshire for military assistance was discussed, in case the strike turned violent. But it was Churchill who advised against any heavy-handed military intervention.
Churchill’s election defeat in Dundee in 1922 was partly due to his ill health. An operation to remove his appendix left him barely able to walk, limiting his ability to make public speeches and tour the constituency. Following Scrymgeour’s win, Churchill resigned from the Liberal party and ruefully announced that in Dundee “I found myself without an office, without a seat, without a party and without an appendix.”
He won the seat of Epping two years later, re-joined the Conservatives and was immediately made Chancellor of the Exchequer, remaining in that post until the fall of the Tory government in 1929. For the next ten years Churchill was in opposition, but his key role in recognising the threat of war posed by Hitler, while strongly opposing Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement, led to his re-admission to the cabinet in 1939, after Hitler invaded Poland and Churchill was proved to have been right. From there it was only a short step to ousting Chamberlain as prime minister and leading a coalition government to final victory against the Nazis in 1945.
Churchill’s shock defeat by Labour’s Clement Attlee in the 1945 general election, sent him back into opposition for six years, during which time he made his famous “Iron Curtain” speech, warning of the dangers of the Soviet Union and socialism, which he described as “a philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance and the gospel of envy, its inherent virtue is the equal sharing of misery.” He was re-elected as prime minister in 1951 and remained in office until 1955. Although his health had deteriorated after several minor strokes, he continued as an MP until 1964.
It is a fascinating fact that this man, so decried and un-celebrated in Scotland, was in fact one of the first senior British politicians to espouse Scottish home rule and UK federalism. As early as 1913 he was on record as supporting the establishment of a federal system in Britain “which will give Wales and Scotland the control within proper limits of their own Welsh and Scottish affairs”.