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Churchill and Parliamentary Democracy

Winston Churchill was first elected in 1900, at age 25, to the British Parliament as a Conservative MP representing the riding of Oldham in the North of England. Except for one short interval, he would remain a Member of Parliament for almost 64 years. He contested 21 parliamentary elections. These are records unequalled in the parliamentary world. It can truly be said that he was both a child and a father of the House of Commons.

Throughout his career Churchill stood for liberty. He believed in open debate and freedom of speech, and opposed any system or ideology that tried to dictate the way one should think. Churchill felt deeply that disagreements within the democratic system should not degenerate into personal animosities. In 1911, he was a co-founder of the Other Club, which was designed to bring together leaders and thinkers from all parts of the political spectrum in gatherings that would bridge the political quarrels of the day.

Churchill changed parties twice. In 1904, unable to support his own government's position on increasing tariffs, he crossed the floor to sit with the opposition Liberals. In 1924, after an absence of almost two years, Churchill returned to the House and rejoined the Conservative Party. "Anyone can rat," he said, "but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat."

During his lengthy Parliamentary career, Churchill held many ministerial positions. As President of the Board of Trade in the Asquith Government, he played a major role in championing legislation leading to the beginning of the welfare state. He also served under Asquith as Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. After the Dardanelles disaster in 1915, Churchill left the Government, and went to France to train with the Second Battalion, Grenadier Guards in France before taking command of the Sixth Battalion of the Royal Scots Fusiliers at the front lines. On his return to Government, he held the positions of Minister of Munitions, Minister of War and Air, and Colonial Secretary in the Lloyd George Coalition Government. He then served as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Baldwin Government, holding that position from his return to the Conservative Party, in 1924, to 1929.

In the 1930s, it was as a "backbench" Member of Parliament that Churchill carried on his indefatigable defence of democracy, warning his country and the world of the Nazi menace. Following the declaration of war in September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain invited Churchill to join the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty. On May 10, 1940, as the war approached its darkest hour, Chamberlain resigned and Churchill became Prime Minister, forming a Government of national unity in which the Leader of the Labour Party, Clement Attlee, served as Deputy Leader.

Throughout the war Churchill was adamant about the importance of Parliament continuing to sit and debate the conduct of the war. "Debates on these large issues," he told the House in 1941, "are of the very greatest value to the life-thrust of the nation." By making it clear that Parliament, and not he or the rest of His Majesty's Government, was the ultimate arbiter of the country's fate, Churchill did much to advance the cause of parliamentary democracy.

After the end of the European war, the Conservatives were defeated and Churchill became Leader of the Opposition until October 1951, when his party was returned to power and he began his second term as Prime Minister. He retired as Prime Minister in April 1955. In 1959, Churchill won his last parliamentary election and remained a Member of Parliament until September 25, 1964. He died on Sunday, January 24, 1965. In a broadcast on that day, Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson paid tribute to "the greatest man any of us have known." History has declared him to be its greatest parliamentarian.

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