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Churchill Derangement Syndrome. Pride and Prejudice in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

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Written by Lawrence Goldman

Two adjoining portraits in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery depict Winston Churchill and Andrew Carnegie, but the Gallery treats them very differently. The public, and figures from the past, have a right to accurate and unbiased history.

History Reclaimed recently hosted a webinar in which Lord Roberts – Andrew Roberts, the historian and biographer – examined ‘Churchill revisionism’ with his typical brilliance and humour. https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/churchill-revisionism/

Andrew described the derangement that seems to afflict many historians whenever Churchill is mentioned or comes into historical focus. For another example of this, I can recommend the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh. Recently, I spent a most interesting afternoon there, learnt a lot of Scottish history, and really rather enjoyed all I saw, with the exception of two adjoining portraits of Winston Churchill and Andrew Carnegie. The Gallery takes great pride in Carnegie; for Churchill there is only prejudice and derangement.

In education, taste and style, Churchill was a quintessentially English figure, but he was MP for Dundee between 1908 and 1922, sitting as a Liberal. Carnegie was a great American industrialist whose poverty-stricken parents had emigrated to the United States from Scotland in 1848. In his later years he travelled often to his ancestral home and he gave away much of his great wealth to Scottish causes. Both men have a claim to a place in a museum of Scottish history and here they face the viewer side by side, though they are treated differently.

The label accompanying Sir James Guthrie’s portrait of Churchill, dating from 1919-21, is resolutely negative. ‘Although usually discussed as a hero in the context of the Allied victory of the Second World War’, the text moves swiftly on to remind us of his mistakes in the First World War. Gallipoli features, of course, and we’re told of Churchill’s demotion from First Lord of the Admiralty over the failure of the 1915-16 campaign ‘resulting in over one hundred thousand casualties on both sides’.

Warming to its theme (and falling prey to derangement) we are told that ‘as Secretary of State for the Colonies after the war, he oversaw British withdrawal from Ireland, a catalyst for the 1922-23 Civil War’. It is as if Churchill was personally responsible for a conflict that occurred after Irish independence and within the Irish republican movement. It also overlooks the famous message sent to Churchill by Michael Collins a few weeks before his murder during that civil war: ‘Tell Winston that we could never have done anything without him’.[i]

Then we’re told that Churchill ‘endorsed the division of the former Ottoman Empire in the Middle East into British and French spheres of interest, with lasting consequences for the region.’ It’s not only the crass simplification of history that betrays the derangement here; Churchill was, in fact, opposed to the harsh terms of the Treaty of Sèvres in 1920 that dealt with the former Ottoman lands. It’s the implication that somehow, in some unspecified way, Churchill is responsible for all the unrest in the region ever since.

To round things off nicely, we’re told that later, ‘as Chancellor of the Exchequer, Churchill played a controversial role in suppressing the General Strike of 1926’. The government of which he was a member was united in its opposition to the General Strike, of course. But it’s that word ‘suppressing’ that really bothers me. As is so well known, the General Strike was remarkably peaceful and it was brought to an end after ten days by the Trades’ Union Congress itself which was never under duress. Suppression? The Labour Movement came to a decision to end the strike of its own accord and for its own reasons.

The omissions are also significant. Where are the references to Churchill as a Liberal minister in the vanguard of social reform while MP for Dundee? As President of the Board of Trade from 1908 in Asquith’s Liberal government he was responsible for the Trade Boards Act of 1909 which established minimum wages in sweated trades; for the introduction of labour exchanges where the unemployed could be paired with available jobs; and for designing unemployment insurance, which was Churchill’s contribution to the National Insurance Act of 1911.[ii]We still have labour exchanges – Job Centres we call them now. The state today guarantees a minimum wage for all. Those in employment still pay National Insurance and can draw benefits if out of work. That’s quite a set of lasting achievements. Why doesn’t the Scottish National Portrait Gallery make Churchill responsible for these continuing legacies, as well?

There is further derangement in the label explaining the portrait of Churchill’s neighbour in the gallery, Andrew Carnegie, painted in 1925 by Catherine Ouless. He was one of the richest Americans in history.[iii] The Carnegie Steel Company in Pittsburgh, and his associated interests in railroads, bridges and construction, brought Carnegie enormous wealth in the first half of his life which he then very largely gave away in the second half. Carnegie Hall in New York is just the most famous example of his largesse. He built hundreds of lending libraries across America and Canada and equivalent numbers of public baths. There were art galleries, civic buildings, charitable foundations, and even the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. As a public benefactor and frequent visitor, he was a hero in Scotland.[iv]

This side of his life is explained in the label beside his portrait which lauds the use of his wealth ‘to advance philanthropic causes’, his pacifism, and his ‘quest for world peace’. But the very brief reference to his ‘huge fortune in railroads and steel-making’ ignores much that defined Carnegie in the accumulatory phase of his life. He was, of course, a ruthless businessman, a true ‘robber baron’, a devotee of insider-dealing in the shares of his associates’ companies, of market manipulation, and of price-fixing cartels, especially when it came to railroad freight. He donated copiously to politicians who supported steel tariffs, notably William McKinley in the 1900 presidential election, making millions of dollars thereby, and ensuring that American consumers paid more for their goods. In public he said he favoured trade unions; but when they organised in his plants he opposed them almost as much as his business partner, Henry Clay Frick. And though it was Frick who was in charge at the time of the infamous Homestead Strike of 1892 at a steel plant outside Pittsburgh – Carnegie was then in Scotland – he shares the blame for the violence, loss of life, and disorder that followed the lock-out of the steel workers and the use of Pinkerton agents to impose the company’s will. Carnegie sought to break the union by any means.[v]

Carnegie was a pacifist, but his steel mills made the armour plate for the US Navy. During the Spanish-American War of 1898, even whilst he took a public stance against American ‘imperialism’ he was encouraging his plant managers to build a steel mill for the manufacture of artillery shells.[vi] And then there’s the incident of the Johnstown Flood in 1889 when a dam burst and killed more than two thousand people in the Pennsylvanian town below. The dam was owned by an elite sporting club of which Carnegie was a leading member, but had been allowed to decay into disrepair. Public philanthropic acts to get the town and its survivors back on their collective feet helped divert attention from those responsible for the tragedy. [vii]

Did the curators of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery ever stop to think of the human cost of making steel in a Carnegie mill in the 1880s and 1890s? Of the physical toll it took, or the high likelihood of industrial injury and death that came with the job? Probably not. The irony is that Carnegie was the most rapacious of capitalists and he rests beside Churchill who was always in debt and never exploited the workers, whatever he thought of their politics. Carnegie was a devout believer in laissez-faire economics and a follower and personal friend of Herbert Spencer, prophet of the ‘survival of the fittest’. Churchill, on the contrary, laid down lasting reforms in the interests of the working class. They were alike in one thing only: Churchill followed Carnegie as Rector of Aberdeen University, elected by the students in 1914, who would seem to have had a better grasp of history and politics than today’s curators.[viii]

Might just a little of this have been added to Carnegie’s label to better explain not just where the money went, but where it came from? Churchill gets it in the neck for collective political decisions that can be criticised by the gallery’s staff luxuriating in the benefit of hindsight. Carnegie gets off scot-free. Permit me to speculate that it’s because Carnegie was such a great benefactor to Scotland that his many personal sins, known even at the time they were committed, are now conveniently overlooked. Yet how many Scottish workers and their families have benefited in the last century from Churchill’s Edwardian welfare reforms?

Churchill Derangement Syndrome is but one of several problems in our museums and galleries that have been recently discussed by History Reclaimed. https://historyreclaimed.co.uk/tracey-emin-and-the-problem-with-museum-trustees/

Historical ignorance, political partisanship, and lack of accountability are three more. It’s not clear who is making these erroneous historical judgments, what advice they’re taking and from whom, and who is ensuring that objectivity and fairness are applied to all exhibits. Legally, the trustees of a museum are in control. It would be good to see the trustees of the Scottish National Portrait Gallery exerting their authority to set right the labels of these two portraits. At present they are spoiling an accurate appreciation of Scottish History and a good day out.

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[i]  Winston Churchill, The World Crisis (London, 1923-31, 5 vols.) vol. 5, p. 348.

[ii] Paul Addison, ‘Churchill, Sir Winston Leonard Spencer’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

[iii] Steve Hargreaves, ‘The Richest Americans in History’, 2 June 2014 https://money.cnn.com/gallery/luxury/2014/06/01/richest-americans-in-history/6.html

[iv] Andrew Nasaw, Andrew Carnegie (Penguin, New York, 2006)

[v] Krause, Paul. The Battle for Homestead, 1890–1892: Politics, Culture, and Steel (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992)

[vi] Peter Krass, Carnegie (John Wiley & Sons, N. J., 2002);  idem, Booknotes, Carnegie, 4 Oct. 2002, C-span.org/video/?173040-1/carnegie

[vii] David McCullough, The Johnstown Flood (Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968)

[viii] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rector_of_the_University_of_Aberdeen

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Lawrence Goldman

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