I’ve started a little irregular series called Prime Minister Ratings – assessing British prime ministers by a very general rating system and showcasing one board game in which the prime minister in question or the problems they faced feature. Our first contestant was Robert Walpole, the very first prime minister. Today, we move on to a 20th century heavyweight: Winston Churchill, the man who led Britain through World War II… and was elected prime minister for a second time six years after the war. Our accompanying board game is Churchill (Mark Herman, GMT Games).
Before we dive into Churchill’s life and the assessment of his policies, here’s…
The Rating System
Some caveats ahead: The prime ministers will be rated by the knowledge of their time. If they or their contemporaries could not have known about the effects of something, I will not use my hindsight to mark it as a mistake of theirs. The assessment is focused on their conduct as prime minister, but includes their life after holding the office (in which they will still be regarded in the public eye as (ex-)PMs). And lastly, in the following, “Britain” serves as a shorthand for either Great Britain or United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland as applicable, “British” for the inhabitants of such.
Now, to the system itself: There are three policy field categories (foreign, domestic, and economic policy) and three more general ones (vision, pragmatism, integrity). A prime minister can earn from one to five stars in each category (for a total sum of up to 30). In detail, the prime minister is assessed as follows:
Foreign policy: Did the prime minister increase British influence in the world and the security of the British at home? Did the prime minister wield British power responsibly and with positive results for the regions affected (the latter counting for a greater deal in times of British power being great)?
Domestic policy: Did the prime minister increase the liberty of the British to express themselves and to participate in the political process? Did the prime minister promote domestic security and shape the framework for fair justice dealing with offenses?
Economic policy: Did the prime minister facilitate the prosperity and economic security of the British (including in the mid- and long-term)? Was the prime minister’s economic policy based on mutual benefit of those involved or did it unduly burden one side?
Vision: Did the prime minister have an idea of what Britain and the world (the latter counting for more in times of British influence being great) should look like beyond the immediate future? Did the prime minister’s policies steer Britain (and, if applicable, the world) in this direction?
Pragmatism: Did the prime minister succeed in seeing their policy through from inception to completion? How well did the prime minister manage the support from Parliament, the Civil Service, the media, society (the latter two counting for more in more recent years)?
Integrity: Did the prime minister understand the office as a means to benefit themselves, special interest groups, the entire country, or another community? Did the prime minister respect the boundaries of the office?
Winston Churchill (1874—1965) came from the English high aristocracy, but inherited a knack for populism from his father, a Tory politician. After formative years as an officer and war correspondent, Churchill turned himself to politics, being elected into Parliament in 1900 (as a Conservative) and joining the government (as a Liberal) in 1905. He held various government posts and was First Lord of the Admiralty when World War I broke out. Churchill resigned over the disastrous Gallipoli landings, but re-joined the government in 1917. While being regarded as a major political talent, Churchill seemed too fickle and unreliable for the highest of offices – for example due to his second change of party (back to the Conservatives) in 1924, after which he served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Once out of office (in 1929), Churchill searched for new causes – and took up first opposition to Indian self-government and, from 1933, opposition to Nazi expansionism. Neither was a popular stance in the Conservative Party or the country as a whole. Churchill had much time for his second calling after politics – writing.
When Germany went to war with Britain in 1939, Churchill, the great Cassandra on Hitler’s aggression, was called back into government. Less than a year later, prime minister Neville Chamberlain resigned over the failure of the Norwegian operation, and on May 10, 1940, Churchill followed him as prime minister. On the same day, Germany invaded France. Churchill presided over a series of military disasters in his first weeks. In this difficult situation, he excelled at maintaining the fighting spirit of his government, Parliament, and the British people. Not only Hitler was surprised when Britain did not seek peace, but opted to fight alone against the Nazi war machine which controlled half of Europe. Churchill’s great speeches of the spring and summer 1940 – from “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat” over “We shall fight on the beaches” and “This was their finest hour” to “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” chronicle his defiance.
Britain did not have to stand alone forever. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and Churchill disregarded his ardent anti-communism in cooperation with Stalin. Six months later, the United States entered the war on the allied side. Churchill was sure that this great alliance of Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States would emerge victorious. His task was now to drive forward the victory – and make sure that Britain, the least populous and productive of the three powers, was not relegated to second rank. For a long time, he succeeded. It was only after the D-Day landings in France in 1944 that Britain’s comparably small material contribution began to turn Britain into a junior partner. Churchill enjoyed great personal popularity for his role in the war, but in the parliamentary elections held two months after the German unconditional surrender, the British voters gave the Labour Party a majority.
Churchill was nominally the head of the opposition and made some memorable speeches warning of Soviet expansionism, but spent most of his time writing his war memoirs (like his other books, they turned into bestsellers). Labour enacted a series of ambitious domestic reforms (from the creation of the NHS to a housing program), but lost their majority in the 1951 elections – so Churchill returned to Downing Street No 10. By then, he was old and suffered from bad health, and domestic politics had never been too interesting to him. However, when Stalin died in 1953, Churchill hoped that a three-way summit between US president Eisenhower, the new leader in Moscow, and himself could resolve the nascent Cold War. His hope was in vain. He resigned in 1955 due to health reasons, but remained a member of parliament until a few weeks before his death in 1965.
Foreign policy: Churchill’s focus of interest, and, as a wartime prime minister, the policy field in which the biggest challenges awaited him. He met them remarkably well. True, he did not increase British power and influence, but he staved off its likely demise by a negotiated peace with the Nazis, and held his own in league with the much larger powers of the United States and the Soviet Union for a long time. More importantly even, while it may have been these powers that eventually won the war, Churchill’s contribution in 1940 was to not lose it – and thus ensuring the liberty of hundreds of millions of people around the globe. Churchill’s wartime record is blemished by his less benevolent approach to the liberty of the peoples under British imperial rule which manifested itself in drawn-out colonial wars during his second premiership.
Domestic policy: Churchill’s main contribution was his unification of the country (and his own party, to begin with) to oppose Nazism – when isolationism, appeasement, and pacifism no matter the cost had been en vogue in the 1930s and still lingered early in the war. Also, the British government’s intrusion into the British people’s lives during the war was remarkably limited given the circumstances, and it can be argued that Churchill’s defense against Nazism was an enormous contribution to the British people’s life in liberty and democracy.
Economic policy: Tough to assess, as Churchill was never too interested in it and let his ministers run the show in these matters. The Labour members of his wartime government were able men, and letting them do their thing without hindrance is an achievement in itself (particularly for a leader as headstrong as Churchill). The British economy also was very efficiently mobilized for war production (and achieved a state of economic “total war” long before Germany’s). In Churchill’s second term, his major economic achievement was to accept and continue the sweeping economic and welfare reforms enacted by the Labour government from 1945 to 1951, even though they had been strongly opposed by the Conservatives when they had been in opposition. Churchill thus became a father of the post-war consensus.
Vision: Churchill’s great mission – the defeat of Nazi expansionism – was in itself not a long-term project. It ended with the Nazis’ unconditional surrender in 1945 – and so did Churchill’s premiership. He took to warning against Soviet expansionism and the hope to end it in a three-way summit between him, the American president, and the Soviet leader in his second term, but this proved futile.
Pragmatism: Churchill was one of only few government members who were committed to fighting on after the fall of France, but he carried his government, his party, and the country at large with him. His broadening of the government to include Labour and Liberal ministers ensured national unity as long as the war lasted. Once Germany was defeated, this unity was over – exactly how it had been designed to be in a competitive democracy. In terms of foreign policy, Churchill seized on the opportunity to cooperate with the Soviet Union and maintained this difficult partnership until the completion of its mission to defeat the Axis countries.
Integrity: As long as Churchill was a wartime prime minister, his conduct in office held up to high standards. Once Germany had surrendered and Churchill switched to election campaign mode, he was not quite as exemplary – alleging that Labour would want to install a “Gestapo” if elected, a smear as baseless as it was unworthy of a man who knew both Hitler and Attlee well enough to understand they stood at opposite ends of the political sphere. As a former prime minister, Churchill was given access to government files for his war memoirs – and used them to shape public opinion and gain another election victory.
Overall: Churchill had great qualities and marked defects. Fortunately for him, Britain, and the world, he was called into office in a time that demanded just what he could offer – and probably no one else who stood ready for the task at hand. With 25 out of 30 stars, he jumps to the top of the ratings.
- Winston Churchill: 25/30
- Robert Walpole, Earl of Orford: 24/30
An excellent overview with portraits of all prime ministers is Leonard, Dick: A History of British Prime Ministers, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2014.
A good start on Churchill – and, despite the somewhat grandiose title, no hagiography – is Best, Geoffrey: Churchill. A Study in Greatness, Hambledon and London, London 2001.
Of course, Churchill’s own writings are of great interest to anyone reading on his times, especially his Nobel Prize for Literature-winning The Second World War, six volumes (also published as an abridged one-volume version), Cassell, London 1948—1953.
You can find Churchill’s 1940 speeches, among the finest examples of oratory in the history of mankind, on the website of the International Churchill Society.