History / Politics

No more heroes anymore?

They might hark back to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the classic Liberal philosophers, such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill. Or they could extol the successes of the twentieth century, with a long roll call of great statesmen and social reformers like Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Herbert Asquith, David Lloyd George and Sir William Beveridge – figures who stand proudly within the pantheon of British political greats. Yet for a party that established the building blocks of the welfare state, and over the past hundred years has participated in four crucial coalition governments (formal or informal) of one sort or another, the Liberal Democrats – or Liberals, as I and many still prefer to call them – seem strangely shy to laud their past luminaries.

There are, however, heroes to be discovered – or rediscovered – if only there were a will to unearth them, polish them up a bit and display them with some confidence.

Great fuss will be made in Brighton in coming days about the newly-published memoirs of one tall, dark, good-looking ex-leader who allied his party to the Conservatives at a time of national crisis, supporting a home agenda of austerity while opposing dictators abroad, only to be eventually cast aside by an ungrateful electorate. But I’ll bet against even a footnote’s mention of another, impossibly handsome Liberal leader, who joined his party to the Tories in a wartime coalition, helped confront the greatest tyrant of twentieth-century Europe, and gave his close friend and prime minister unstinting support for five lean years in the gravest crisis in this island’s long history – only ultimately, like his later successor, to be discarded at the polls once the hard work had been done.

Nick Clegg will receive his due acclaim; Sir Archibald Sinclair, Liberal leader for ten long and difficult years between 1935 and 1945 – and before Clegg the last Liberal to hold a post of cabinet rank – is unlikely to be mentioned in despatches. Yet ‘Archie’ (as he was known to all and sundry) deserves greater attention. Ultimately his legacy might well be, like Clegg, that he led the Liberals on a downward electoral path, but his is a compelling story, and there is much to chew over and admire in his years at the top of British political life.

It was a difficult beginning. Born in 1890, Archibald Henry Macdonald Sinclair was an orphan by the age of five, his mother Mabel dying just a few days after his birth from peritonitis, while his father Clarence succumbed later to poorly treated syphilis. Archie’s was an itinerant early existence, being shuffled around between various aunts and uncles. But on the death of his grandfather Sir Tollemache Sinclair (former Liberal MP for Caithness-shire) in 1912, he had the great good fortune to inherit a baronetcy, together with Thurso Castle and the ownership of 120,000 acres at the northernmost tip of Scotland.

Eton-educated, young Archie had the courteous, if slightly aloof, manners expected of the aristocratic Highland gentleman, and he would always retain Edwardian standards of dress, notably with his trademark wing collar. Endowed with striking good looks, an assured manner and an easy charm, he might have been ‘the complete tragic actor … with long black hair, deep-set greenish-brown eyes and a pale face’.

He soon mixed in influential Liberal circles under the wings of Herbert Asquith and his daughter Violet. And through his aunt, Mrs Owen Williams, he had an entrée to the court of King Edward VII. But the defining friendship of Archie’s life took root at the Maidenhead home of an American actress and theatre owner called Maxine Elliott: there, in late 1913, he met Winston Churchill.

Churchill, already making his name as an outstanding Liberal reformer, was then thirty-nine, sixteen years older than Archie. Yet they quickly discovered common ground. Churchill’s mother Jennie, like Mabel Sinclair, was an East-Coast American. While Churchill’s father Randolph had also died because of venereal disease. As boys, both Winston and Archie had been nurtured by nannies, and both had pursued similar military careers, enrolling at Sandhurst and training as cavalry officers. Each had also struggled with a speech impediment – Churchill with a lisp, unable to pronounce his ‘s’s, Sinclair with a slight stammer.

Theirs was to prove a natural, instinctive and deep-seated bond. ‘They delighted in one another’s society even when both poured out a Niagara of words, as often happened, simultaneously’, observed their mutual friend Violet Bonham Carter. When Churchill left Asquith’s cabinet in 1915, headed for the battlefield to do penance after the disastrous Gallipoli campaign, he chose Archie as his second-in-command in the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers. And once the war was over, Sinclair served as personal military secretary to Churchill at the War Office (1919-21), and then as his great friend’s private secretary at the Colonial Office (1921-22).

Sinclair’s political independence finally began to flourish in 1922 when he moved out of Churchill’s shadow. While he was elected as Liberal MP for Caithness and Sunderland, Winston lost his Dundee seat and began his journey back to the Conservative Party. In the House of Commons Archie built a reputation as a skilful opposition speaker, and played his part in helping Lloyd George modernise Liberal Party policy.

The early 1930s were troubled times for the Liberals, and a dry run for the dilemmas that would face Clegg & co. in 2010. Cherished policies such as free trade were sublimated or jettisoned by new leader Sir John Simon in favour of helping provide stability as part of a series of national governments, increasingly dominated by the Conservatives. Sinclair himself became Scottish secretary in Ramsay MacDonald’s 1931 administration, eventually achieving cabinet rank.

He succeeded to the Liberal leadership in 1935, after Simon’s successor Herbert Samuel had lost his seat in a disastrous general election which saw the party’s representation in the Commons plummet to just twenty-one. In many ways Archie was a Radical rather than a classic Liberal, but his more interventionist social and economic philosophy made little headway as the decade progressed. By now, the all-embracing political issue was how to deal with the dictators Mussolini and Hitler.

Here Sinclair carved out a distinctive and highly effective path for the Liberal Party. He stood shoulder to shoulder with his old personal and political friend – and now Tory rebel – Churchill in demanding a stronger air force and more secure defences. The two men would often synchronise their Commons speeches on the subject. But Sinclair also pressed for collective security through the League of Nations.

After the inevitable outbreak of war, the Tory prime minister Neville Chamberlain grudgingly offered Sinclair and the Liberals a place in his government. But the two men loathed each other, and Sinclair declined, despite the national interest. Later, when Chamberlain called a Commons debate on 7 May 1940 to discuss the disastrous Norway campaign, Sinclair’s highly effective attack on the prime minister, for failing to properly arm British troops, helped hasten his downfall. Three days later, Archie’s old friend Winston took over in Downing Street and offered him the job of secretary of state for air. Archie accepted willingly – despite initial reservations about the post not being in the inner War Cabinet.

artwork-archibald-sinclair

Sir Archibald Sinclair, air secretary (montage by Alwyn Turner)

It should have been one of the most powerful jobs in the wartime administration, in charge of the RAF, which was leading the battle to prevent a German invasion. But Churchill emasculated his old friend in favour of his ‘soul mate’, Lord Beaverbrook, when he carved off a slice of the Air Ministry and appointed the newspaper magnate minister of aircraft production. Beaverbrook was given carte blanche to use every method available to increase production of Hurricanes and Spitfires for the Battle of Britain – a job he did superbly for those crucial summer months of 1940. But with the productive element of his department gone, together with any real strategic influence he might have had on military strategy (Churchill had appointed himself minister of defence), Archie’s own role was substantially weakened.

Sinclair’s private secretary Sir Ronald Melville felt Churchill’s relationship with two of his oldest and closest friends was always an unequal one because ‘Winston treated Sinclair like a son – but he looked on Beaverbrook as a father’. The prime minister liked to play the two men off against one another, believing the creative tension this generated spurred them on. And who can say he wasn’t right? Sinclair, with his good relationship with the air marshals (apart from Hugh Dowding) and affection from the pilots, together with Beaverbrook’s relentless production drive, combined to give ‘The Few’ the best chance of winning the Battle of Britain.

There were those in the corridors of the House of Commons who referred unkindly to Sinclair as ‘Head of School’s fag’. One minister who attended the Battle of the Atlantic Committee in the desperate days of early 1941 was struck by ‘the abuse and insults Winston heaped upon Archie, which … was strange, for he was devoted to Archie, and had a very real affection for him. But never in the smallest way did he [Sinclair] show resentment to these outrageous assaults: they seemed to pour off him like water off a duck’s back’.

Where Sinclair’s reputation as a wartime minister came under fierce scrutiny (after the end of hostilities) was over the bombing of Germany. The new air minister had promised MPs in August 1940 that Britain would not use its air power to ‘rain down terror on the German people’. But when the crunch came from 1942 onwards, moral and ethical considerations took second place to a harsh, but in Sinclair’s eyes, necessary military strategy.

There was never any public acknowledgement from him that ‘precision’ targeting had given way to ‘area’ bombing, although his true feelings were made clear enough in a private letter to the Bishop of Dunblane, when he said that ‘a desire to avenge [misdeeds by the Germans] does not inspire the policy of the RAF, but it mitigates our feelings of sympathy for a people who have thrice waged aggressive war and have, until now, remained immune from its torments while ruthlessly visiting them upon its neighbours.’ Rightly or wrongly, this was a view that the vast majority of the British people accepted at that time, in the heat of the conflict.

The war took a heavy toll on this most industrious of ministers, whose working day would stretch from 10 a.m. to 3 the next morning. In July 1940 Guardian editor William Crozier visited him in his office and thought ‘he looked ill, his face was white, and I thought fallen as compared with time I saw him last, and his clothes hung loosely on him.’ By October 1943 Crozier was reporting that ‘Sinclair now lived completely at his office, was burnt out and had a face like parchment.’

So engrossed had he been with his ministerial responsibilities that Archie found little or no time to keep in touch with his constituents during the war. They duly punished him at the ballot box in July 1945, putting him bottom of the poll (albeit with only 61 votes separating the three candidates). He tried for re-election in 1950, but when he failed he accepted a peerage in Churchill’s first honours list, after his friend’s return to power in 1951, becoming Viscount Thurso of Ulbster on 10 April 1952.

Ill health soon put an end to his public life. At the start of the war, he had been diagnosed with dangerously high blood pressure and put on a strict fat-free diet. But he suffered two serious strokes, in 1952 and 1959, the latter leaving him in a coma for six months. Thereafter he was bed-bound until his death in 1970. His old adversary Beaverbrook showed a capacity for private generosity and thoughtfulness when, on Sinclair’s seventy-second birthday, he wrote to Lady Thurso, ‘My Dear Marigold. This is a message to Archie which I ask you to read to him. He did much over five years and worried so greatly on account of the boys who lost their lives that it is no wonder that he is now a war casualty.’

When Churchill gathered all his ministers together in the Cabinet Room in 10 Downing Street on 28 May 1945, for a party to mark the end of the wartime coalition, the prime minister – in tears as he often was on these occasions – assured his ‘band of brothers’ that a ‘light would shine on every helmet’ and posterity would hail their individual achievements.

Unfortunately for Archie, Lord Woolton, Sir John Anderson and others, Churchill had also maintained that ‘History will be kind to me – for I intend to write it myself’. His magisterial six-volume account of the war contains a very great deal about WSC, and much less about the work of his outstanding ministers. The Labour contingent of Clement Attlee, Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison resonate today because of their roles in the reforming 1945-51 governments that followed; Archie’s swift political fall and subsequent poor health took him out of the spotlight of public life, and thus out of history. In any case, he was never one to court the limelight.

Some felt Archibald Sinclair was a weak minister during the war, primarily because he was too subordinate to his great friend and minister of defence. But many more agreed with the verdict of one of his senior civil servants at the Air Ministry, Sir Maurice Dean, who said Archie was ‘thoroughly competent, completely devoted and highly respected … a great gentleman.’


This piece was adapted from Roger Hermiston’s All Behind You, Winston: Churchill’s Great Coalition 1940-45 (Aurum Press, 2016). His previous books include The Greatest Traitor, a biography of the Cold War spy (and KGB mole) George Blake, and Clough and Revie, the story of the fierce rivalry between those two great football managers.

Before he turned to writing history full-time, Roger was a print and broadcast journalist. He was a reporter and feature writer on the Yorkshire Post and later joined the BBC in the early 1990s. The bulk of his career at the corporation was devoted to BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, where he was assistant editor from 1999-2010.


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