Churchill and the Prof: Putting 'Declinism' at the Heart of the System

Mike Finn | 31 October 2019

British History | Modern History | Political History

In October 1951, after a six-year absence, Winston Churchill was returned to office as British Prime Minister at the head of a Conservative government. His previous stint for which he is most famous was as head of a wartime coalition, appointed rather than elected. His 1951-1955 term – which Anthony Seldon once described as his ‘Indian Summer’ – is less familiar to a contemporary audience.

Yet Churchill’s second term has still played a key role in shaping the contemporary political landscape, not least in terms of the politics of ‘declinism’ – the school of commentary and historical writing that constructs Britain’s story in terms of its ‘decline’ as a world power, often for highly-politicised reasons. It is almost a banality to note that Britain’s status in international affairs was a preeminent concern for Churchill; in the course of 1951-1955 – four years otherwise seen by many historians as unremarkable in political terms – the question of global power and science and technology policy would, for Churchill, become inextricably linked.

On his return to office, Churchill invited his old friend and ally Frederick Lindemann – by now Lord Cherwell – to assume his old ministerial office of Paymaster-General which he had held during the Second World War. Cherwell, as much as Churchill, is a controversial figure; acting as Churchill’s scientific adviser during the Second World War, it was Cherwell’s calculations, as Madhusree Mukerjee has shown, which played a key role in the Bengal Famine of 1943.

In the 1950s, Cherwell – an eminent physicist and Oxford professor – used his government and academic roles to lobby strongly for a British equivalent to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). This was anchored in his conviction that Britain’s great power status was contingent on the radical reshaping of science and technology policy – and its education system. Himself a graduate of the Berlin Technical University where he had studied until Walther Nernst, he was dismissive of much of British scientific and technological education.

He consistently used his relationship with Churchill to push for reform – often against the tide of broader intellectual opinion. Whilst academic thinking on curricula in Britain was increasingly focusing on interdisciplinarity in the post-war period, partly in reaction to what was seen as ‘excessive specialisation’ (and thus, so the argument ran, moral bankruptcy) in the German institutions to which Britain’s civic universities in particular were indebted, Cherwell was unrepentant in his defence of such institutions. In a 1952 memorandum to the Prime Minister, Cherwell argued that it was ‘essential to train a new race of technologists to effect a [‘minor’ penciled out] revolution in our industrial outlook, because it is vital for our survival that productivity should rapidly increase’. To this end, Cherwell wanted three new technological universities.

He was an advocate of what C. P. Snow would come to call the ‘two cultures’ thesis of a rift between the Arts and the Sciences. In a debate in the House of Lords in 1957, shortly before he died and some years out of office, Cherwell decried the lack of basic scientific knowledge he found amongst ‘Arts men’, and argued pointedly that a lack of ‘technologists’ placed Britain at a disadvantage to Russia.

Cherwell had made the same arguments for years; in a typescript of his notes for a speech at a conference in 1950, the same themes can be found. In 1954, after he had left office but whilst Churchill was still Prime Minister, he had – in Churchill’s words – ‘warned that…the Russians were getting ahead not only of us, but of the Americans’. Churchill recounted this in a letter to Harold Macmillan during the latter’s tenure as Prime Minister, pleading for more spending on technological education.

This warnings had an impact on Churchill, both in office and out of it. In 1954, Churchill appointed Sir David Eccles as Minister of Education, the first minister ‘to assume educational expenditure was economic investment’, in the words of former civil servant Maurice Kogan. In his first meeting with his Parliamentary Education Committee, Eccles argued that ‘education was the basis of the defence of freedom.’

For Eccles, taking office towards the end of Churchill’s term, the link between education and economic growth was axiomatic, and thus in turn global power. Under Churchill’s successor, Sir Anthony Eden, Eccles would promote a ‘public sector’ of higher education – the Colleges of Advanced Technology – which would be advertised in emphatically geopolitical terms.

Churchill, in his retirement, would spend time lobbying for the Churchill Technological Trust, who sought to build a College at Cambridge in his name, supposedly focusing on scientific and technological education. Cherwell’s influence on him – the duo had been dubbed ‘Churchill and the Prof’ – had been profound. But their partnership in the 1950s, building on their tenure during the Second World War, helped construct educational expansion in Britain in ‘techno-nationalist’ terms, to borrow David Edgerton’s phrase. They were not alone in this, but the peculiar emphases in STEM discourses in contemporary British politics owe at least a little to the crystallisation of declinist ideas about scientific and technological education which took place during, and after, Churchill’s peacetime government.

These ideas – equating science and technology with British power and the possibilities of influence – live on, and offer a distinctively British framing to broader debates over higher education policy, marketisation, neoliberalism and techno-nationalism which span party lines and, as Edgerton has shown, illuminate broader questions as to the nature of the British ‘nation’ in the post-war era.

Mike Finn is Senior Lecturer in History and Director of Liberal Arts at the University of Exeter. A historian of modern and contemporary British history, his doctoral research focused on the political economy of higher education in post-war England. His most recent book is British Universities in the Brexit Moment: Political, economic and cultural implications (2018).