Aberdeen academic explores Churchill’s leadership success

As the nation marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day, an Aberdeen academic has re-examined accounts of Winston Churchill’s iconic leadership and how north-east connections may have shaped this.

It was in Dundee that Churchill resurrected his political career winning a seat at the 1908 General Election after being ousted from his Manchester constituency, a position he went on to hold for 14 years until defeat in 1922.

Churchill also became Rector of the University of Aberdeen in November 1914 – a role in which he represented the student community throughout the First World War.

Neil McLennan, director of leadership programmes at the University of Aberdeen, has explored Churchill’s legacy and his connections to Scotland as part of a VE Day Edition of The Army Leader.

He said: “Today the face of Winston Spencer Churchill will adorn commemorative coins and feature across the media.

“But the debate over Churchill has swung between wholehearted hero-worshippers, including our incumbent Prime Minister who writes on ‘The Churchill Factor’; to rabid revisionists criticising Churchill, with little in between.

“The middle ground, like much in politics and debate today, has been hollowed out. There is little consideration of Churchill’s role through the concept of ‘leadership as practice.’ As we mark VE Day, focussing more on the man, his development, the thinking behind actions and less on the myth may bring us deeper, more meaningful understandings of his leadership.”

Mr McLennan says his time in Scotland plays a key role in this – as Churchill’s biographer Roy Jenkins noted it was Dundee’s Caird Hall which provided a training ground for some of his famous 1940-45 speeches. However, there is only one plaque to mark his time in the city, which he says reflects the mixed views of him there.

“Churchill was a complex figure and his Scottish connections are good evidence of this,” Mr McLennan added. “He reputedly said that ‘of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind’. This was high praise indeed for someone who devoured leadership lessons from history.

"During his time as Dundee MP Churchill worked with David Lloyd George to implement the principle of minimum wages, unemployment insurance and Labour Exchanges. In the 1910 General Election his win in Dundee allowed further galivanting as a rising political star however, Churchill did not often return to his constituency except odd days here and there and for the election period.

“His popularity began to dwindle with opposition to Churchill deepening because of his actions as Home Secretary, particularly his decisions to send in troops to a miners strike and in transport strikes a year later.

“Despite cutting a divisive figure in his Dundee constituency, he held onto his seat until November 1922.

“By that time his rousing anti-Bolshevist speeches did not have the same appeal for post-World War One Dundee workers with memories of how Churchill affirmatively ended strike actions and he was ousted.

“Around this time we saw Churchill move back from Liberal to Conservative politics – a critical departure which set the path for his later political life and role in the history books.”

Churchill’s associations with north-east Scotland are largely seen to have ceased after his 1922 Dundee defeat but Mr McLennan has found evidence of associations with the region peppered throughout his later political career.

He has found an engagement diary entry which shows that during the height of the Second World War, in October 1944, Churchill found time in his hectic diary to meet the Lord Provost of Aberdeen for lunch.

“The Aberdeen Lord Provost Sir Thomas Mitchell is thought to have been a regular visitor to Downing Street but it is still remarkable to see this lunch entry during what must have been an extremely busy period for Churchill,” said Mr McLennan.

“Churchill’s appointments that week included Cabinet meetings, seeing the King of Yugoslavia and, later that week he met with Stalin.

“This was not the last of Churchill’s north-east Scotland connections for in 1946 he was awarded Free Burgess of the City of Aberdeen. In his speech he noted ‘the qualities and firmness of character for which the Scottish race is renowned are thought to reach their fullest and most profound manifestation in the granite city of Aberdeen’.”

“He was also awarded an honorary degree from University of Aberdeen where his speech spoke of ‘the needs of the free world’.”

Mr McLennan says that the week Churchill met Aberdeen’s Lord Provost is indicative of leadership which was ‘complex with his workload relentless and range of engagements vast’.

“Today we might call it ‘system wide thinking’,” he added. “Whilst historians note he was trained for leadership and possessed natural talents, understanding the development of his thinking is important.

“It is another man with Aberdeenshire connections, his Private Secretary Jock Colville, who offers some of the best insights into this.

“He noted that whatever his shortcomings as a man – and revisionist historians have noted Churchill to be an alcoholic who was boorish, stubborn and with a track record of failure – he was able to provide guidance and purpose to senior military and political leaders.

“Without him Colville noted a possible maize of ‘inter-departmentalism’ or things being frittered away by ‘caution and compromise.’

“Colville said two qualities set him apart- ‘imagination and resolution.’ He certainly had a vision in Europe and the world’s darkest hours, and his ability to translate it into victory brought him his finest hour.

“Learning more about the man, his learning, his development and his human side is likely to produce better leadership lessons. In 1952 we see Churchill with children ‘hunting for Nessie’ during a visit to Balmoral in Aberdeenshire. It is the human interactions we do not always see beneath the myth and mystique.

“He was very much the leader of a united, cooperative effort, with a clear figurehead. After the war Churchill wanted to create a high impact education establishment. Deeper leadership learning could help with many world issues today. After all, as we reflect on VE day, we also consider the global crises of today and how important leadership will be in finding effective solutions.”

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