Churchill Borrowed Ideas From H.G. Wells

December 2006 - Researching a book on Winston Churchill, Dr Richard Toye, a lecturer in history at the University of Cambridge, has found that science fiction writer H.G. Wells was a significant intellectual influence, both during the statesman's early career and subsequently. Churchill and Wells met in 1902, by which time Wells had already written some of his best-known works including The War Of The Worlds and The Time Machine. The two men kept in touch until Well's death in 1946.

Prior to their first meeting, Churchill had written enthusiastically to Wells following his publication of Anticipations calling for the establishment of a scientifically-organized 'New Republic'.

Dr Toye said:

"We need to remember that there was a time when Churchill was a radical liberal who believed these things. Wells is often seen as a socialist, but he also saw himself as a liberal, and he saw Churchill as someone whose views were moving in the right direction."

Dr Toye points to connections between a landmark speech given in October 1906 in which Churchill described his vision for a supportive state as a 'Utopia' and Wells' 1905 book A Modern Utopia. Writing to Wells to praise the book two days before the speech, Churchill acknowledged "I owe you a great debt".

The writer's influence was ongoing. Churchill famously refers to 'The Gathering Storm' in a speech about the rise of Hitler's Germany and the term became the title of his first book about World War II. It also appears in The War Of The Worlds, HG Well's much earlier work describing pending Martian attacks on Britain.

Dr Toye commented:

"It's a bit like Tony Blair borrowing phrases from Star Trek or Doctor Who".

Further examples of Wells' apparent influence on Churchill highlighted by Dr Toye include:

  • 'State support for ordinary citizens' - Both believed that the state should support its citizens through provision of pensions, insurance and child welfare. Wells wrote: "The State will stand at the back of the economic struggle as the reserve employer of Labour." Churchill said: "The State should increasingly assume the position of the reserve employer of labour."
  • 'The competitiveness of men' -Wells wrote that man was naturally competitive and thus prone to failure, but the state could help "make the margin of failure endurable". Churchill said: "I do not want to see impaired the vigour of competition, but we can do much to mitigate the consequences of failure".
  • 'Selective breeding'- Wells argued that people should fulfil certain conditions such as being physically fit and financially independent before having children. Churchill told Wells he particularly admired "the skill and courage with which the questions of marriage and population were discussed". Churchill was described by a friend as 'a strong eugenist' shortly after reading Wells' book.
  • 'The English-Speaking Peoples'- Wells predicted political unification of 'the English-Speaking states' and development of 'a great federation of white English-speaking peoples'. He also mentioned the idea of 'interchangeable citizenship' for Britons and Americans. Subsequently, Churchill frequently argued for the 'fraternal association' or 'unity' of the English-speaking peoples, and wrote a major History of the English-Speaking Peoples. In 1943 he proposed that "there might even be some form of common citizenship, under which citizens of the United States and the British Commonwealth might enjoy voting privileges after residential qualification".

Dr Toye commented:

"People look at politicians in the 20th century and presume their influences were big theorists and philosophers. What we forget is that Churchill and others were probably not interested in reading that stuff when they got home after a hard day in the House of Commons. They wanted to read a book that was full of ideas but was also going to be fun. H. G. Wells was perfect for that. Churchill was definitely a closet science-fiction fan. In fact, one of his criticisms of A Modern Utopia was that there was too much thought-provoking stuff and not enough action."

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