Randolph Churchill, father to Winston, exerted a profound influence on his son in a number of ways which he perhaps would not have envisaged. First, their difficult personal relationship, characterised by Randolph’s high expectations and Winston’s initial failure to meet them, clearly left its mark. Second, Randolph’s political career can be summarised as one of unmet potential. This too, coupled with Randolph’s early death, influenced his son. Close to his own death, Winston was to confide to his daughter Mary that his one regret was that his father had not seen him make a success of his life.
Active in the Conservative Party from a young age, Randolph Churchill entered Parliament in 1874, shortly after his marriage. Within a few years he had a reputation as a trouble-maker – sharp tongued, and as critical of his own party as he was the Liberals. He was impatient with what he saw as the elitism and naivity of the Conservatives. Randolph was anxious for change, arguing that the party needed to represent the ordinary members of society or face permanent opposition. Liberal reforms should be considered on merit, rather than rejected out of hand. This series of ideas coalesced into what he termed ‘Tory Democracy’, and initially made him few friends. Arguably, his most important legacy was to shift the party’s centre of gravity in this direction.
In 1877, however, his career was almost derailed when Churchill was implicated in a scandal involving the Royal Family. He had fallen out with the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, whom he threatened to expose as an adulterer. In those times, such behaviour from a public figure was completely unacceptable. He was marginalised by Prime Minister William Gladstone, being sent to work as Viceroy in Dublin for the next four years.
But by 1885 Churchill could no longer be ignored. He was brought into government as Secretary of State for India. Within a year he was promoted to Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader of the House – more or less dictating his own political terms. It seemed nothing would stop Randolph Churchill; here was a prime minister in the making.
By 1887 however, it was all over. In December of 1886 he had over-played his hand during a budget row with the War Ministry. He resigned, perhaps being surprised when this was actually accepted. Moving to the backbenches, Randolph’s career quickly lost its lustre. He was now begining to show the symptoms of the illness which would kill him at the age of forty five. Sometimes incoherent, his speeches in the House became embarrassing.
Debate continues about Randolph’s illness. For many years it was accepted that he had syphilis; this now seems less likely, with modern weight of opinion favouring a brain tumour. Whatever the cause, Randolph Churchill was a talented man stricken down early. He died 24 January 1895. (Winston Churchill was also to die on 24 January, seventy years later, in 1965).
Although his academic achievements were modest, Randolph had been to Eton and to Oxford university. An attractive and self-confident young man, he married well, and controversially. Jennie Jerome was a noted American beauty from a wealthy background; but not aristocratic enough for some members of his family. He expected great things of his son, and would never know the extent to which his own achivements would be eclipsed by Winston.
The death of Randolph Churchill at 45 left a profound scar on Winston. Although Randolph had lived to see his son succeed at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, the issues between them were unresolved. Winston concluded that the men died early in his family. From now on, he would throw everything he had at life. In this we see an early glimpse of his belief in ‘fate’ – that some things were simply meant to be.
See also article on Clementine Churchill.