Churchill and Parliament

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January 2015 marks 50 years since the death of Sir Winston Churchill (1874–1965). Though best known today as Britain’s great wartime leader, Churchill led a long and eventful life during which Parliament played a central role.

Churchill described himself as ‘a child of the House of Commons’. Born in the same year that saw his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, first elected as an MP, he was exposed to parliamentary life from an early age.

Beginning in 1900, Churchill’s own Commons career spanned 64 years, the longest in the 20th century. During this time he sat for two parties, represented five constituencies and contested twenty-one elections. In government, he held numerous ministerial positions and served as Prime Minister twice.

Following his death at the age of 90, Churchill received the rare honour of lying-in-state in Westminster Hall. Though this marked the end of his lifelong relationship with Parliament, Churchill’s impact continues to be felt here in a number of ways today.

House of Commons, 1906-8 House of Commons, 1906-8
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Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, Lord Churchill Randolph Henry Spencer-Churchill, Lord Churchill
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Following a period in the British Army, Churchill was first elected to Parliament in 1900 as Conservative MP for Oldham. Routinely critical of the Conservative leadership, in 1904 he ‘crossed the floor’ to join the Liberals. Twenty years later he would cross the floor again to rejoin the Conservatives.

When the Liberals came to power in 1905, Churchill attained his first political office as Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies. With the Secretary of State, Lord Elgin, in the Lords, Churchill was the spokesman on colonial issues in the Commons.

This image of the 1906–8 House of Commons shows Churchill sitting at the end of the government front bench. Alongside him sit the rest of the Liberal Cabinet including Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

Churchill’s political outlook was greatly influenced by that of his father, the Conservative MP Lord Randolph Churchill (1849–95). Lord Randolph first made his name in the late 1870s as a member of the ‘fourth party’, a group of young Conservatives who gained prominence for criticising their own party as well as the opposition.

The 1880s witnessed Lord Randolph’s meteoric rise as he urged the Conservatives to adopt popular reforms they had previously opposed. In 1886 he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, only to resign months later in a failed attempt to force the Prime Minister, Lord Salisbury, to side with him in a Cabinet dispute.

Lord Randolph never returned to frontline politics and died at the age of 45 following a long illness. Churchill later wrote of his father’s death:

‘All my dreams of companionship with him, of entering Parliament at his side and in his support were ended. There remained only for me to pursue his aims and vindicate his memory.’