Churchill Archive Platform - Class and politics

During the Victorian era the significance of social class was heavily qualified by other loyalties such as religion, occupation and region. For example, although skilled workingmen, trade union members and manual workers who ran small businesses were often keen Liberals, by the 1890s the Conservatives had organised support in working-class communities, especially in Birmingham, Clydeside, Merseyside and parts of East London. Middle-class voters in northern England and Wales were likely to be Liberals, especially if they were Nonconformists, but in the south they favoured the Conservatives, especially if they were Anglicans. Irish voters typically backed the Liberals over Home Rule, but as Catholics they often supported the Conservatives in school board elections. After the Home rule crisis of 1886 many landed, upper-class men felt moved not just by the threat from Home Rule but by land taxation and Church disestablishment to gravitate towards Conservatism, so that by 1900 there was a greater polarisation of the wealthy around one party than before.

The trend towards social polarisation was accentuated in the Edwardian period when the progressive taxation of wealth, along with the controversy over the powers of the House of Lords, dominated the debate. For although the Liberals retained much middle-class as well as working-class support, their representation was entrenched in the urban-industrial areas of London, the Midlands, the North, Wales and Scotland. Their successful alliance with trade unions and the newly-emergent Labour Party in the three elections of 1906 and 1910, reinforced by their attack on wealth and privilege, appeared to take Britain closer to a class-based pattern of politics than ever before. This effectively pre-dated the development of Labour as a major party.

Although the pattern of party politics was disrupted by the First World War the process was accelerated during the 1920s by the huge extension of the parliamentary electorate in 1918, which created a large working-class majority, as well as by the doubling of trade union membership from four million in 1913 to over eight million by 1920, and the expansion of the Labour Party which contested almost every constituency by 1924. The general strike of 1926 further accentuated this development, as many workingmen who had hitherto voted Liberal or Conservative found that their loyalty to their fellow workers led them towards Labour. After the second Labour Government collapsed in 1931, the Party reorganised and refashioned its appeal during the later 1930s. These developments were then dramatically overtaken by the Second World War, which by 1945 had the effect of radicalising voters through a widespread conviction that they must not be betrayed by the political elite as they had been after 1918; as a result the election of 1945 probably represented a high-water mark for class voting in Britain. The marked polarisation along class lines continued throughout the 1950s, accentuated by the near-elimination of the Liberal Party. Yet even at this stage the Conservatives retained substantial working-class support amounting to around half of their total vote. Part of the explanation for this is that since 1928 women had comprised 52 per cent of the electorate, and in the 1950s the Conservatives recovered their position by appealing to them. They also consolidated their position by most of the ‘consensus’ politics - including state welfare, full employment and conciliation of the unions - associated with the post-war Labour Government, and by a renewed emphasis on house-building and home-ownership. This led some contemporaries to argue that the workers were adopting the values and aspiration of the middle class.

In studying the evolution of class in British politics in the first half of the twentieth century, the Churchill Archive is a treasure-trove of valuable material. The archive is centred on the career of Winston Churchill, but it doubles as a vital resource for studying British politics and society because Churchill, who first entered parliament in 1900, was at the centre of events for half a century. Then again, there is no escaping the fact that Churchill shaped those times, and to study Churchill is to study the times, too. Churchill’s own attitude to class, as it impacted on his political allegiances, was itself fluid: hailing from an aristocratic background, he began his political career as a Conservative before joining the Liberals in 1904 and taking up the cause of social reform; nineteen years on he rejoined the Conservatives, but was never entirely comfortable operating within the framework of rigid party lines. Indeed he was in many ways non-party, preferring to make his mind up issue-by-issue, and as his wartime premiership shows he was probably happiest as a coalition leader.

Where to Find Documents in the Churchill Archive

This is by no means an exhaustive list, just a suggestion for starting points, and should be used in conjunction with the search facilities that will enable you to search across files for people, places and topics relevant to your individual research interests.


  • Although Churchill entered parliament as a champion of imperialism in 1900 the extensive material on the three constituencies he represented in his early career, Oldham [CHAR 3], N.W.Manchester [CHAR 3] and Dundee [CHAR 5] counter the traditional impression of him as a politician largely focused on the great national issues of empire, war and defence. As these constituencies included many working-class voters he was obliged to respond to the mundane, local questions that concerned them. As a Tory member in Oldham he supported the nomination of workingmen to the magistrates bench including J.R. Clynes, later a leading Labour M.P. [CHAR 3/2/17, 20] In Manchester he was persuaded to intervene in a local industrial dispute [CHAR 3/4/13,38], and in Dundee he used his influence to get an old age pension for a constituent who had been refused one [CHAR 5/15/4,5].


Following the Liberals’ landslide victory in 1906 the political agenda became more focused on questions of living standards, social welfare, taxation and unemployment. On the constitutional side debate concentrated on reform of the House of Lords after the peers’ rejection of the ‘People’s Budget’ in 1909 and Irish Home Rule after 1910. Churchill found himself at the centre of controversy with his former party. This was partly because from 1908 he represented the two-member borough of Dundee with 19,000 largely working-class electors, where Churchill ran in tandem with Labour’s Alex Wilkie.

  • This period saw him at his most democratic and radical. In the elections of 1906 and 1910 he endorsed the greater participation of workingmen in politics: ‘The people can be trusted. They are of age.’ [CHAR 5/10/30, speech, 11 October 1906]. He lavishly praised the trade unions, saying, ‘They are from day to day in contact with reality. They are not mere visionaries and dreamers.’ He also backed a range of state interventionist measures, arguing that ‘the whole tendency of civilisation is towards the multiplication of the collective functions of society.’[CHAR 9/21/77] The controversy with the House of Lords even led him to employ the language of class conflict: after the peers rejected the 1909 budget he defined the issue as a choice between ‘the party of the rich against the poor, of the classes and their dependants against the masses, of the lucky, the wealthy, the happy and the strong against the left-out and the shut-out millions of the weak and the poor.’ [CHAR 9/33/2, speech, 13 January 1909]. For the grandson of a duke this was inflammatory language.
  • There are also some interesting records covering Churchill’s time as President of the Board of Trade and Home Secretary, when he championed measures to improve the lives of ordinary people, such as unemployment insurance and working conditions in shops.


  • The First World War sent the Liberals into prolonged decline and accelerated the rise of the Labour Party, which unexpectedly formed its first government in 1923. During the war Churchill’s relationship with the working-class began to unravel, largely due to his obsession with the war effort and his role as Minister for Munitions in Lloyd George’s coalition. His criticism of the increasingly militant workers for striking while the war had not been won began to make him unpopular [CHAR 5/20/15]. From 1919 onwards the rise in unemployment left him vulnerable as he remained a leading member of the government [CHAR 5/20/22]. Although Churchill retained his seat in Dundee at the 1918 election, he came under steady attack from the left, and was heavily defeated in 1922.
  • Churchill’s way of handling this, which he used for the rest of his career, involved trying to split the working-class into a moderate, responsible half, which was to be conciliated, and an extremist, Socialist half which he relentlessly attacked [CHAR 5/2/17], painting his opponents as subversive and unpatriotic. During 1919-23 the threat posed by Bolshevism became a regular theme in his speeches; reversing his Edwardian view he portrayed the Labour Party as a symptom of the threat, even referring to a ‘conspiracy’ to make Ramsay MacDonald prime minister [CHAR 9/67/1]. He had re-joined the Conservatives by 1923, but his approach to organised labour was at variance with that of the Conservative Leader, Stanley Baldwin, who felt that the loyalty and patriotism of the workers during the war meant that their political representatives must now be accepted as a legitimate party of government [CHAR 2/5/132/ 1-6, 10-13]


The wartime coalition from 1940 to 1945 saw the Conservatives discredited, restored the standing of the Labour leaders after the debacle of 1931 and ushered in a fresh agenda of domestic reforms which were implemented by Clement Attlee’s Labour Governments from 1945 to 1951.

  • Despite his popularity as a wartime leader Churchill found himself rather out-of-touch with public opinion; in a broadcast on 11 June 1945 [CHAR 2/556/8] he warned voters of ‘a rough road ahead’ which was not what they wanted to hear after five years of wartime privations. His heavy and unexpected rejection by voters at the 1945 election led him to re-engage with the politics of class. The Churchill Archive includes some interesting Conservative surveys of working-class attitudes during the 1950s. On the negative side they underlined the obstacles to voting Conservative, such as the Labour Government’s success in keeping unemployment below two per cent: many workingmen were fearful that ‘if the Tories get back there will be sure to be unemployment’, and privately the party admitted ‘full employment is working against us’ [CHUR 2/99A, 123; CHUR 2/109/8-11]. Conservatives also recognised that they should try to make union members an integral part of the party organisation, but as Churchill believed that the trade unions should keep out of party politics, there was little to be done [CHUR 2/131/20, 23].
  • More positively Conservatives attempted to attract sections of the working-class less inclined to vote on class lines. For example, working-class women were less likely to be influenced by the work experience or to join unions than men, so Churchill made a point of addressing women’s concerns as housewives about food rationing and supplies [CHUR 5/30/10, speeches, 18, 21 January 1950]. They also addressed home ownership, an issue which had been pushed up the agenda by the impact of wartime bombing on the housing stock. From 1950 onwards the Conservatives promoted the idea of the ‘property-owning democracy’ with a view to giving workingmen a tangible stake in the system [CHUR 5/37/45, 198-9]. Harold Macmillan, Housing Minister from 1951-54, made his political reputation by building 300,000 houses a year. As a result housing became a major influence on voting during the 1950s and influenced the evolution of class politics for several decades.