Milk cost 2p a pint; meat and sugar were still rationed and the average house price was £1891. The year was 1952 and on the 6th February that year, Princess Elizabeth, daughter of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, ascended the throne as Queen Elizabeth II.
62 years later and our Queen is still going strong and, unbelievably, is on her twelfth prime minister. So here, in this series of blogs, I wish to take you on a royal and political journey, introducing you to Her Majesty’s Prime Ministers. Let’s start all the way back in 1952.
The first of Queen Elizabeth II’s prime ministers was wartime Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill.
Winston Leonard Spencer Churchill was born on 30th November 1874 during the reign of Queen Victoria. He was born into the aristocratic family of the Dukes of Marlborough and his father was Lord Randolph Churchill who served as Chancellor of the Exchequer under Robert Cecil’s government. His mother was an American socialite. As a British Army officer, Winston Churchill saw action in British India, the Sudan and the second Boer War.
Winston Churchill was at the forefront of politics for over fifty years. Before the First World War, he served as President of the Board of Trade, Home Secretary and First Lord of the Admiralty. He continued as First Lord up until the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign after which he resigned from Government. Churchill did, however, return to Government as Minister of Munitions, Secretary of State for War and Secretary of State for Air. During the Stanley Baldwin Conservative Government of 1924-1929, Churchill served as the Chancellor of the Exchequer, where he controversially returned the pound sterling to the Gold Standard at its pre-war parity.
During the 1930’s, when Churchill was out of office and in the political wilderness, he began to take the lead in warning against Nazi Germany. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Winston Churchill was again made First Lord of the Admiralty and a member of the War Cabinet. When Neville Chamberlain resigned on 10th May 1940, Churchill was recommended to be Prime Minister, and as a constitutional Monarch, King George VI asked him… Churchill’s answer was, of course, yes.
The new Prime Minister’s steadfast refusal to consider defeat, surrender or a compromise peace helped inspire British resistance, even at the bleakest of times when Britain stood alone in its active opposition to Adolf Hitler. At the 1945 post-war election, in a shock result, the British people voted against Churchill, and the Labour party came into power; Churchill was now Leader of the Opposition.
Six years later and Winston Churchill was back; in the general election of 1951, the people of the United Kingdom voted in favour of Churchill, and he was once again Prime Minister. Little did Churchill know that his Monarch King George VI would soon be deceased, and his weekly audiences would soon be held with his daughter, some 50 years his junior.
When King George VI died on 6th February 1952, his daughter Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth II. On her arrival back from Kenya, was greeted by – among others – Winston Churchill, her first Prime Minister.
One of the first pieces of advice Winston Churchill gave to the new queen was on the subject of Royal House name. When she ascended, it was assumed by many that the Royal House would change its name to House of Mountbatten, after her husband Prince Phillip’s surname. This idea was wholly rejected by many, including Queen Mary, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Winston Churchill to name but a few. These people did everything in their power to prevent this from happening, and they succeeded. Several years later however, Queen Elizabeth II proclaimed that some of her descendants would hold the name Mountbatten-Windsor, probably done in order to placate her disheartened husband.
The relationship between The Queen and Churchill is often compared to that of Queen Victoria and Lord Melbourne, however Churchill’s befriending of the young queen was never for his own political gain. It is probably fair to say that Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill became friends. This was somewhat confirmed in 1953, when The Queen honoured Churchill with a knighthood, making him Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill carried on in office until 1955 when, for health reasons, he retired from his role as prime minister. Initially, The Queen had offered him a dukedom, but he refused, hence, the reason he was knighted.
His appearances in Parliament became less frequent over the next few years; however, he did continue to serve as MP for Woodford right up until the 1964 general election. In 1959, Churchill became Father of the House, the MP with the longest continuous service, although he had already gained the distinction of being the only MP to be elected under both Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II.
On 24th January 1965, Sir Winston Churchill died after a severe stroke, coincidentally 70 years to the day after his father’s death. By decree of Queen Elizabeth II, his body lay in state for three days, and a state funeral service was held at St Paul’s Cathedral. This was the first state funeral for a non-Royal Family member since 1914, and no other has been held since. As his coffin passed up the Thames, Dockers lowered their crane jibs in salute, the Royal Artillery fired a 19 gun salute and the RAF staged a fly-by of 16 English Electric Lightning fighters… the sign, surely, of a much loved Briton. Churchill was buried in the family plot at St Martins Church, Bladon.
Sir Winston Churchill is widely regarded as one of the greatest wartime leaders of the 20th century, and who can argue with that? His steely determination to “Never Surrender” was, in my opinion, a catapult to Britain winning the Second World War. It is not, however, just his wartime leadership that stands out: When you say Winston Churchill, his relationship with Queen Elizabeth II as a young Monarch is just astounding. Many forget how long our Queen has been our Queen, and that her first prime minister was the Victorian-born Churchill. Surely, he was a man who was thought highly of by Queen Elizabeth II. After all, how many more of her prime ministers has she decreed a state funeral too, usually a service that is reserved for the highest of royalty.
A bit of trivia before I go: Sir Winston Churchill was named the greatest Briton of all time in a 2002 poll and is widely regarded as being among the most influential people in British history. He also received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953 for his numerous published works.