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  More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)

More than 5000 entries on the history, culture and life of Britain (published in 1993 by Macmillan, now out of print)
Winston Churchill

(1874–1965, KG 1953)
Prime minister 1940–45 and 1951–5, and perhaps the most determined and inspirational war leader in Britain's history.

Born in *Blenheim Palace, grandson of the duke of Marlborough, his background was one of privilege. It was also political. His father, Lord Randolph Churchill (1849–95), was a brilliant orator and a controversial leader of a splinter group within the Conservative party. His mother, Jennie Jerome, was the daughter of a flamboyant American speculator.

After an unhappy time at Harrow, Churchill became an officer in the 4th hussars. Posted to Cuba, India, the Sudan and South Africa, he supplemented his income with newspaper articles; and it was as a journalist that he achieved sudden fame in 1899–1900, when his dramatic reports from the *Boer War for the Morning Post included an account of his own escape from a Boer prison camp. Throughout his life he derived his main income from writing, in particular his massive personal histories of the World Wars, The World Crisis (6 vols, 1923–31) and The Second World War (6 vols, 1948–54). He was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1953.

Churchill had unsuccessfully contested the seat of Oldham as a Conservative in a by-election in 1899, but he returned from South Africa to win it in the *'khaki' election of 1900. He held it until 1906 but in the election of that year he needed to find a new constituency, having changed his allegiance and joined the Liberals in 1904. His subsequent constituencies were Manchester (1906–8), Dundee (1908–22), Epping (1924–45) and Woodford (1945–64). He is rare among modern politicians in having crossed the floor of the House twice, defecting to the Liberals in 1904 and returning to the Conservatives in 1924.

He rapidly achieved high office, becoming president of the Board of Trade in 1908. As home secretary (1910–11) he became an ogre for the left through sending troops to deal with strikes in the Welsh mines and through his personal involvement in the *Sidney Street siege (this reputation was later reinforced by his militant response to the *General Strike in 1926). His energies as first lord of the Admiralty (1911–15) did much to prepare the navy for World War I, though his bold plan for *Gallipoli ended in disaster. At the same period he gave influential support to a new invention, the *tank.

After the break-up of the Liberal-Conservative coalition in 1922 Churchill found himself at odds on many issues with the Liberal leadership. Standing as an independent, he was without a seat from 1922 until winning Epping in the general election of 1924. To his surprise he was offered by Baldwin the office of chancellor of exchequer, and his acceptance brought him back into the Conservative fold. His time as chancellor (1924–9) is remembered chiefly for his disastrous decision to put Britain back on the *gold standard (a policy abandoned in 1931 after insupportable pressure on the currency). During the 1930s he was again in the political wilderness, his pugnacious attitude to Nazi Germany being at odds with the fashionable policy of *appeasement. If Churchill had died in 1939, history would have remembered him as a brilliant maverick.

On the outbreak of *World War II Chamberlain appointed him to the very post he had held during the previous war, first lord of the Admiralty. But on 10 May 1940, after the failure of the Norwegian campaign, Chamberlain resigned. Churchill was the natural man to succeed him. And it was during that darkest summer of 1940 that his astonishing oratory seemed to rally the nation, from his opening statement to the House of Commons on May 13 that he had 'nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat'. Each successive crisis produced phrases that have resounded ever since, from the danger of invasion after *Dunkirk ('their *finest hour') to the *Battle of Britain (his tribute to the *Few). With his oratory went his personal trademarks – the large cigar, rarely seen in a much reduced state, and his famous *V-sign.

Churchill lost the general election in June 1945 (in his own words, 'all our enemies having surrendered unconditionally or being about to do so, I was immediately dismissed by the British electorate from all further conduct of their affairs'), but he returned to Downing Street in 1951, finally retiring in 1955. One certainty in a frequently uncertain career had been his very happy marriage, in 1908, to Clementine Hozier (1885–1977); and somehow he had found time to remain an enthusiastic amateur painter. His death, on 24 January 1965, was followed by the rare honour of lying in state in Westminster Hall and a state funeral in St Paul's Cathedral. He was buried in the small churchyard of Bladon, near Blenheim.

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