David Cannadine on Winston Churchill’s unlikeliest role

He never lost his loathing of school, but becoming a university chancellor made the leader an ally of higher learning, writes David Cannadine

June 11, 2015
Daniel Mitchell illustration (11 June 2015)
Source: Daniel Mitchell

When Winston Churchill was born in 1874, W. E. Forster’s Education Act, which is widely regarded as the beginning of modern mass education in this country, had been on the statute book for only four years. By the time of his death in 1965, the Robbins report had advocated a significant expansion in higher education, while Harold Wilson’s Labour government was carrying through a revolution in secondary education, aiming to supersede grammar schools with comprehensives. During the course of Churchill’s lifetime, education was often a major political issue. Who should receive it? To what level and to what age? How should individual performances be assessed? And what part should the state play in providing and funding education? Perhaps because of his own unhappy experiences as a schoolboy, Churchill himself was never much interested in these questions.

Both at his preparatory schools and at Harrow, he resented headmasterly authority, disliked rote learning, hated examinations and was generally regarded as a “troublesome boy”; and while he may have exaggerated his scholarly shortcomings in the pages of My Early Life, he was deemed insufficiently clever to go on to university, and had to make do with the Royal Military College at Sandhurst instead. Thereafter, Churchill would regularly describe himself as “an uneducated man”, with the result, as R. A. Butler would later note, that his interest in education was “short, intermittent and decidedly idiosyncratic”.

While chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924 to 1929, he did all he could to cut spending on state schools in the pursuit of retrenchment and economy, and the president of the Board of Education, Lord Eustace Percy, was convinced he was taking revenge for his own miserable schooldays. Churchill’s response was to dismiss him as “Lord Useless Percy”.

For much of the Second World War, R. A. Butler was in charge of education, but from the vantage point of 10 Downing Street, Churchill still did not regard the post as “a central job”. He had moved Butler there to get him out of the Foreign Office, where he was deemed too much of an appeaser. On offering him the appointment, Churchill informed Butler that the purpose of mass education was to “tell the children that Wolfe won Quebec”.

Nor did his opinions on the subject mellow with age: as peacetime premier between 1951 and 1955, Churchill paid scant attention to Florence Horsbrugh, the minister of education, whom he regarded as a weak and marginal figure, and thus an appropriate person for the job, and he did not initially give her a seat in the Cabinet; while his private opinion was that the recently raised school-leaving age should be lowered back to 14.

Yet there was one area of education that did become important in Churchill’s later life, and that was – rather surprisingly – his involvement with universities, beginning with his appointment as chancellor of the University of Bristol in 1929. It was an unexpected choice, for Churchill had virtually no connection with any UK university, let alone Bristol in particular, and it was also widely believed that his political career was now over. He had always regretted that he had never been able to study for a degree, and he constantly alluded to this during the speeches he made at Bristol during the 1930s. Then in 1940, he became prime minister and a global celebrity. Bristol suddenly and unexpectedly found itself with the most famous chancellor of any university in the world, and his two wartime visits to confer honorary degrees, in the dark days of 1941 and on the eve of victory in 1945, were unforgettable occasions.

From 1940 until his retirement as prime minister in 1955, Churchill remained an active and engaged chancellor of Bristol. During the same period, he was also showered with honorary degrees in Britain, in Western Europe and in the US, and in the addresses he delivered on such occasions, he spoke frequently and eloquently in defence of universities and in praise of the benefits, both individual and collective, of higher education. Indeed, no British prime minister has ever been given, or gladly taken, so many opportunities to celebrate academic learning as Churchill did: certainly not Thatcher or Blair or Cameron. Perhaps there was something to the explanation of his enthusiasm for higher learning which Churchill offered: having been denied in his youth the privilege of a university education, he had come in his maturity to value and appreciate it all the more.

But in his later years of power and fame, Churchill also came to recognise that university and college campuses were the ideal setting for him to deliver broad-ranging, ex cathedra pronouncements on the state of the world, of a kind that he had practised and perfected as chancellor of Bristol during the 1930s. Hence his famous addresses at Harvard University (on the importance of Anglo-American amity), at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri (on the threat presented by the “Iron Curtain”), at the University of Zurich (on the need for European unity) and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (on the Janus-faced nature of 20th-century science). All these speeches, especially that at Fulton, were controversial; but they also reached a worldwide audience, and they consolidated Churchill’s reputation as a global guru.

It was, then, both unexpected yet appropriate that the national memorial to him should be the establishment of Churchill College, Cambridge, which Churchill hoped might emulate MIT, training scientists and technologists who would help keep the UK at the forefront of world affairs. Later prime ministers, from Eden to Macmillan, Wilson to Thatcher, may all have attended Oxford, and they, too, were chancellors of British universities; but only Churchill is commemorated with an Oxbridge college named after him. Not bad going for someone who described himself as “an uneducated man”.

Sir David Cannadine is Dodge professor of history at Princeton University and chairman of the Churchill 2015 commemorations. He will present new research into Winston Churchill’s relationship with the University of Bristol on 17 June 2015 at the Churchill War Rooms, London.

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Article originally published as: Bristol fashioned (11 June 2015)

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