Winston and Archie - a book review

Winston and Archie
The collected correspondence of Winston Churchill and Archibald Sinclair 1915 - 1960
edited by Ian Hunter, pub. Politicos, London, 2005
ISBN 1 84275 040 2, £30

Liberal Party Headquarters, when I went to work there in the early 1960s, was a curious hybrid. It retained vestiges of past glories alongside Jo Grimond's valiant efforts to modernise the party. One long serving member of staff, Tommy Nudds, ran the Liberal Central Association, which had been set up in 1874 as an "arms length" body separate from the main party organisation in order to protect the Liberal parliamentarians from the ravages of the party activists. In reverential tones I was told that Tommy had spent the war years "in Whitehall" as personal secretary to Sir Archibald Sinclair, leader of the Liberal Party from 1935 to 1945 and who had been Secretary of State for Air in Churchill's wartime government.

Sinclair, ennobled as Lord Thurso, appeared on the current list of Liberal peers, along with such luminaries as Beveridge and Samuel, but he never spoke in the Lords. In the deferential hushed tones of the time he was said, simply, to be "ill". I learned from Ian Hunter's painstaking labour of love that he had, in fact, suffered a second stroke in 1959 which had left his mental and physical faculties seriously impaired. Lord Beaverbrook, with whom Sinclair had many wartime spats, believed that it was the strain of Sinclair's wartime responsibilities that had ruined his health and, in a letter to Lady Thurso in 1962, he referred to Archie as a "war casualty."

Sinclair was a patrician Scotsman, the fourth Baronet of a title created in 1786, and a "working" rather than an "intellectual" politician. He left no written legacy and, to the Liberal party faithful, he was an intriguing figure forever hidden behind the striking 1943 portrait of an exceptionally handsome man with piercing eyes and his trademark wing collar. Now, thanks to Gerard de Groot's 1993 biography and, particularly, to this remarkable collection of correspondence between Sinclair and Churchill, he emerges from the shadows.

Sinclair was sixteen years Churchill's junior and it was in the early days of the First World War that their friendship first flourished. Clearly, despite the constraints of military rank, they developed a closeness that endured over the following forty-five years. The benevolent symmetry of the survival of a substantial amount of their correspondence has enabled Ian Hunter to assemble a valuable insight into the political events of their time as seen by two key participants. Inevitably it is the official correspondence during the wartime years from 1940 to 1945 that is particularly valuable, furnishing a fascinating perception of Churchill's style of leadership of the war effort. The text abounds with "Action this day" memos and with attention to curious minutiae of the military process. It is particularly clear that Churchill took no account of personal friendships in his formal conduct of the government. There is no hint of cronyism in these pages and Sinclair was as vulnerable to Churchill's criticisms as any other member of the government.

Sinclair had the severe geographical handicap of representing Caithness and Sutherland - the farthest mainland constituency from London. His heavy commitment to the conduct of the war as Secretary of State for Air kept him in London for the best part of the five years before the 1945 election and prevented him from nursing his constituency. His Conservative opponent, Gandar Dower, appearing to recognise this, gave a public commitment that, should he win, he would resign following the end of the war against Japan to cause a vacancy which would enable Sinclair to contest a by-election in more favourable electoral circumstances. Dower was elected in the closest three-cornered contest in history - just sixty-one votes divided the three candidates - but refused to honour his pledge.

By the 1950 general election Dower had fallen foul of the local Conservative association and was deselected. Even so Sinclair failed by just 269 votes to regain his seat. Interestingly there is no hint in the published correspondence of any appeal to Churchill to intervene in the Gandar Dower affair, nor of any offer to do so. There may, of course, have been private letters but, given the portrait of Sinclair that emerges from Hunter's editorial efforts, it is likely that Sinclair would have deemed a matter of such personal sensitivity as unworthy of being thrust before Churchill.

Ian Hunter's editing and research is impeccable and he has done a considerable service to a particular niche in twentieth century history. Whether it merits such a major volume is another matter but those interested in discovering more light and truth about a key period of recent history will find it invaluable.

September 2005