For historians, the fun of presidential election season comes when candidates start playing games with history. Often this takes the form of “you don’t know me, but remember that great guy? I’m like that guy.” The thing is, politicians generally don’t know squat about that guy; they’re just looting the iconography of civilization for their own momentary convenience.
Case in point: Paul Ryan tries to get voters to understand him by saying,
“You know what I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. I have a bust of Winston Churchill in my office right now,” Ryan said. “Winston Churchill probably got it right when he said the Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, so I think we’re at that point. This is an inflection point, this is a choice of two futures.”
Winston Churchill, of course, did not have politics anything like Paul Ryan’s. Churchill built the kind of government Ryan opposes.
In 1908, Churchill wrote in favor of unemployment insurance, “National Infirmity Insurance etc”, public works – “Special Expansive State Industries – Afforestation – Roads”, state control of the railways, and compulsory education through high school. “I say – thrust a big slice of Bismarckism over the whole underside of our industrial system …” And in fact Churchill designed the unemployment insurance bill that passed into law in 1911.
Churchill did not think the poor had to deserve their benefits. “I do not like mixing moralities and mathematics,” he explained.
And as to mathematics, he supported the 11% revenue increase, requiring raised taxation of the rich, for the 1909 budget.
He was in a way a proto-Keynesian: in 1910, Churchill wrote in favor of using public works to alleviate cyclical unemployment:
it ought to be possible with our present science and civilization to mitigate the violent fluctuation of trade by some recourse to public works of a reproductive character which could be carried on placidly in good times and actively in bad.
In the same passage, Churchill supported a continued policy of deportation for “tramps and wastrels” but took a shot at the wealthy:
It must not however be forgotten that there are idlers and wastrels at both ends of the social scale.
As home secretary, Churchill instituted policies for the more humane treatment of prisoners and to reduce the number of people imprisoned in the UK, especially the number of juveniles. He declared himself against
the evil by which 7,000 lads of the poorer classes are sent to gaol every year for offences for which, if the noble lord had committed them at college, he would not have been subjected to the slightest degree of inconvenience.
Though he did not oppose capital punishment altogether, of the forty-three death sentence cases presented during his term, he intervened to save twenty-one from the rope.
All this came during the period when Churchill had become a Liberal. He left the Conservatives because, he said, “I said a lot of stupid things when I was in the Conservative party, and I left it because I did not wish to go on saying stupid things.”
But even after he returned to the Conservatives, even after the Labour party had socialized health care and much else under the Attlee government, Churchill left these measures in place. The National Health Service remained ensconced at the center of British national obligation to its citizens.
In short, Churchill’s principles and policies were the opposite of Paul Ryan’s.