David Lough was recently interviewed by A Blog on Winston Churchill about his excellent book No More Champagne: Churchill and His Money. In the thoroughly researched book Lough uses his background in finance to provide a ground-breaking study of Churchill’s money problems.
- How did you become interested in Winston Churchill?
I was fourteen when he died. At the time I had a brilliant history master who described Churchill to his pupils as “no more than a romantic old windbag”. I took that verdict home as my own and was shocked by my grandmother’s reaction – she was visibly, physically angry. She started my re-education by taking me to Chartwell and then she bought me copies of the official biography on their publication. She also bought me the companion volumes containing reprints of original documents – it was those that gave me my first taste for real history.
- Why did you choose to write on Churchill’s finances?
Churchill’s son Randolph wrote the first two volumes of the official biography – and chose the documents for the accompanying volumes. He included quite a bit about his father’s money, because he had often tried to borrow from his father to cover his own debts and knew that it had not been easy for his father to produce the necessary sums.
When Randolph died and Martin Gilbert took over the task of writing the rest of the biography, Churchill’s money problems retreated to the wings. Gilbert was a great historian but primarily a political historian and by the time he took over the story Churchill was at the centre of the political stage. His financial problems only pop up occasionally and there is no continuity.
Years after Gilbert had finished the biography, I was reading Mary Soames’s collection of her parents’ correspondence, called Speaking for Themselves. It was clear from their letters that money remained a problem for most of the Churchill’s lives, but she cut out much of the detail for lack of space.
By this stage I was an experienced private banker and knew that the way people deal with money can tell you a lot about them as a person. I tried to find a book that dealt with this aspect of Churchill’s life – and found that there was none. So I decided to fill the gap!
- How long did you work on this book?
Seven years – four years of research, two years of writing, a year for all the various stages of the publication process (not least obtaining copyright permissions). I was doing a few other things throughout, but don’t believe that I could have squeezed it down to fewer than five years.
- What did you learn in your research that surprised you the most?
The single incident that surprised me most was Churchill’s secret rescue from bankruptcy in June 1940, weeks after becoming wartime prime minster, as he battled to keep France in the war and to prepare Britain against invasion.
More generally Churchill’s level of risk-taking in Churchill’s private life as well as his public life – some of his behavior in the 1930s is scarcely understandable to someone raised as I was!
- Please comment on the seeming paradox that Churchill was always worried about money and yet remained a spendthrift as he supported his extravagant style of living.
It is difficult to understand. It wasn’t just that he was a spendthrift, but that, for example, he would go gambling each summer in the 1930s and lose an average of £40,000 a year although he already owed his creditors up to £2 or 3 million (all figures in today’s money).
I had never come across anything like this in my professional career, so I consulted psychiatrists about it. Without being able to talk to Churchill at length and reach a proper diagnosis, they could only say that this behavior could be the result of an “extravagant personality” or could be a symptom of a more disordered personality, perhaps part of a defence mechanism Churchill employed against what he called his “black dog” moods – or even the reverse side of these moods.
I am not a psychiatrist, so I decided to stick to what I knew about, the financial and human story.
- In the book you ask whether “Churchill would have survived scrutiny by the standards of his own day if the details of his finances had become more public.” What would have been the biggest scandal had the details of his finances indeed become more public?
I think his manoeuvres with the tax authorities – either in 1925 and 1926 while he was chancellor of the exchequer or in 1941 and 1942 while he was prime minister. On both occasions he effectively used his political position to obtain privileged treatment.
The latter occasion also involved Churchill’s advisers, with his prior knowledge, passing on what we will call “economies with the truth” to the Inland Revenue. But there was a lot at stake – in 1941 Churchill still owed today’s equivalent of more than £1 million and it was a question of whether his wartime literary earnings were to be taxed at 97.5 per cent (as income) or zero (as capital receipts). Expediency won!