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Hero to zero – BBC documentary to reveal how Sir Winston Churchill was kicked out of Dundee

Winston Churchill at an election meeting in Kinnaird Hall, Dundee, in 1908
Winston Churchill at an election meeting in Kinnaird Hall, Dundee, in 1908

Ahead of a BBC documentary, senior Dundee University history lecturer Dr Billy Kenefick speaks to MICHAEL ALEXANDER about the significant role played by Dundee and Fife in the turbulent political aftermath of the First World War.

Battered, broken and all too used to brutality, the eyes of Dundee’s poorest people stare out from the city’s Register of Inebriates, giving an illuminating if not rather sad human insight into the terrible living conditions experienced by all too many Dundonians in the early 1920s.

Low wages, long hours and little food meant life was hard in the city, with many trying to escape life and poverty through alcohol.

The inebriates register, held by Dundee’s McManus Galleries, is a fascinating historical record of those fined for breaking the Licensing Scotland Act and being intoxicated in public during the early 20th century.

But more than that, it gives an insight into the struggles of a city which eventually decided it had had enough of broken promises from the ruling post-First World War Westminster elite at a time when revolution was in the minds of the discontented Europe-wide.

The register features in a new BBC documentary ‘Scotland: The Promised Land’ which explores the fascinating story of the political heavy weights who fought it out in Dundee during the early 1920s when the certainty of total war was replaced by the uncertainty of peace.

During the First World War, which ended in November 1918, Dundee had sent as many soldiers as any city in Scotland to the front, and its jute mill workers played a crucial role making sandbags for the trenches.

More than 100,000 Scots soldiers fell with barely a town, street or cottage unaffected by the carnage. Dundee suffered a particular heavy toll during the Battle of Loos, and as peace prevailed, politicians promised ‘homes for heroes’.

But as the world’s economy slumped in the post-war years, and as spending cuts bit, new long-term unemployment was heaped upon the old ills of overcrowding, malnutrition and high infant mortality.

Dundee became a city with a reputation for despair, drunkenness and disorder.

So as the 1922 general election approached, Dundee’s working class voters – who had only been given limited voting rights since 1918 – were ready to have their say, as were ex-servicemen who had been promised decent houses which never materialised and penniless war widows who were struggling to make ends meet.

What followed was a remarkable battle for hearts, minds and souls, as Dundee became a key battleground in Scottish politics.

And it was the sitting MP a political notable called Sir Winston Churchill, of the ruling Liberal Party who was to pay the price.

“The Liberal Party was loved by the working class people of Scotland and particularly by the people of Dundee when Churchill was elected in 1908,” said Dr Billy Kenefick, senior lecturer in history at Dundee University who is also chairman of the Great War Dundee Project.

“But from 1910, a series of events occurred that Churchill is seen to have had a hand in.

“Not least he wouldn’t back women’s suffrage. When asked why he wouldn’t give women the vote or political rights, he said ‘you have political rights as exercised through your husband!’

“He brought troops in during the miners’ strike in 1910 and during the transport strike in 1911. He was very popular with the Irish in Dundee before then, but can you imagine how quickly that popularity would wain when he sent troops into Ireland after the war?

“By 1922, the women are out for him, the Irish are out for him, and the Dundee working class are out for him.”

Elsewhere the world was in turmoil. In Ireland a nationalist rising developed into a full blown war of independence and in Russia the revolution was threatening to spread west instilling fear of the so-called ‘red menace’ across Europe.

But the warning signs of deepening discontent had also been evident closer to home.

When a political demonstration in Glasgow’s George Square turned into a riot, the red flag was hoisted by protestors and tanks were sent on to the streets to maintain order.

By 1922, as post-war expenditure cuts started to bite, there was a feeling that this was not the promised ‘land for heroes’.

It was this simmering disaffection which boiled over in Dundee, resulting in Churchill being defeated by a Dundee politician whose slogan was ‘Vote as you pray’.

Edwin Scrymgeour who established the Scottish Prohibition Party – is the only person ever elected to the House of Commons on a prohibitionist ticket. A devout Christian and a socialist, he was a strict teetotaller convinced that banning alcohol would banish the city’s desperate social problems.

Standing against him was Willie Gallacher, a revolutionary Communist who had just returned from revolutionary Russia and a meeting with its leader, Lenin.

The Dundee election was also fought by E.D. Morel, a former conscientious objector who stood for the Independent Labour Party as a total of six candidates contested two seats. By winning the second of the Dundee seats he was part of a socialist revolution which saw Labour breakthrough winning 29 out of 71 Scottish seats five times more than their previous vote.

During that 1922 campaign, Churchill arrived late recuperating from a major operation. He was carried around the streets in a chair like an imperial viceroy, with detail captured in reports by The Courier newspaper of the time.

Norman Watson of DC Thomson & Co Ltd reveals how during one meeting, Churchill was carried into the Caird Hall by four men. The men were paid £1 each to carry him into the hall. Because he was in such poor condition he was given a muted rather than hostile reception. But Mr Watson added: “Some WAG in the crowd shouted ‘we’ll give you £2 if you drop him!’”

Churchill got stuck into Morrow with personal attacks about his French roots. “No foreigner should be in the British parliament,“ said Churchill, who also called socialists “reptiles”.

Stories appeared in the local press of 6000 people “packed like barrels of herring” turning up for drill hall meetings with queues down the street and reports of baton charges by police.

So motivated were the Dundee public for change, that there was a turnout of 83% on election day.

The candidates gathered at a first floor window of the Caird Hall as the returning officer read the results. Churchill was voted out and after decades of dominating Scottish politics, the Liberal Party was humbled. The revolutionary communist came bottom with 5000 votes.

The victor with one of the biggest majorities ever known in Dundee was the prohibitionist Scrymgeour.

E.D. Morrel was the other elected – a breakthrough for the Labour Party across Scotland.

Meanwhile, the story of North East Fife-raised Sir John Gilmour also features in the programme.

He was elected Conservative and Unionist MP for Glasgow Pollock, then one of the safest Conservative seats in the UK.

Sir John a war hero and Orange Order member – didn’t have much problem being elected as a man to “defend Scotland from the perils of socialism”. Although seen as the establishment party of the upper classes at the time, conservatism didn’t have bogey man reputation of today. It always had a cross-class appeal. There would have been deference to figure like Sir John and general expectation that he would be an effective political figure.

He inspired such confidence that he was soon appointed Scottish Secretary.

The remarkable story of class warrior Jennie Lee from Lochgelly in Fife also features on the programme.

*Scotland: The Promised Land, Ep 1/3 is on Wednesday March 23 on BBC Two Scotland from 9pm until 10pm.