Roberts traced Churchill’s growing support of a Free Market ideology, tempered by his involvement in welfare reforms whilst in the Liberal Party; anchored in practical experience as Chancellor of the Exchequer; and fuelled by a growing conviction that collectivism was a short-sighted route to national poverty: “in a career that spanned over sixty years, Churchill discovered for himself that collectivism simply doesn’t work, and he had the courage to act accordingly”.

His staunch support of Free Trade over Tariff reform forced Churchill to move from the Tories to the Liberals in 1904. Roberts argued that this stance “was ultimately driven by the Tory Democracy idea that [Free Trade] meant cheaper food for the working man.” The Welfare reforms, he argued, were a move to protect the working and the vulnerable from falling prey to the ideas of collectivism: “It was this concern for the ordinary working Briton, whom he didn’t want to fall into the clutches of organised labour or socialist politicians, that led to Churchill adopting German ideas for a minimal social security safety net”.

Roberts pointed out that Churchill’s views were shaped by his reading, his experiences, and by trial and error. Most important of all were his five years as Chancellor of the Exchequer: “If we need to look for a Damascene conversion moment… his surprise appointment to the Treasury, when suddenly he was personally and unexpectedly responsible for the shaky finances of post-Great War Britain, provides one”. His adherence to Free Market principles was coupled with a cautious approach to national borrowing, and appreciation of the detrimental legacy of an unruly deficit: “The wrong way would be to aggravate the burden of debt by fresh borrowing… and to exclaim with Louis XIV, ‘After me, the deluge’”.

The least-studied, but, Roberts claimed, one of the most important periods of Churchill’s career, was his period in opposition in 1945-51, when “Churchill set out a critique of Socialism and collectivism, as well as a defence of free market Capitalism, that should ring down the ages”.

This lecture, which formed part of the Legatum Institute's History of Capitalism series, was hosted by Hywel Williams, Senior Adviser at the Legatum Institute.

Related Materials

About the Speaker

Andrew Roberts took a first in modern history from Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, from where he is an Honorary Senior Scholar and PhD. His biography of Winston Churchill’s foreign secretary Lord Halifax, entitled The Holy Fox, was published in 1991, to be followed by Eminent Churchillians, Salisbury: Victorian Titan (which won the Wolfson Prize and the James Stern Silver Pen Award), Napoleon and Wellington, Hitler and Churchill: Secrets of Leadership, Waterloo: Napoleon’s Last Gamble, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples Since 1900 (which won the US Intercollegiate Studies Institute Book Award) and Masters and Commanders: How Roosevelt, Churchill, Marshall and Alanbrooke Won the War in the West 1941-45, which was shortlisted for the Duke of Westminster’s Gold Medal and the British Army Book Award. Roberts has also edited a collection of twelve counterfactual essays by historians entitled What Might Have Been, two volumes of essays by forty historians entitled The Art of War, as well as The Correspondence of Benjamin Disraeli and Mrs Sarah Brydges Wylliams. His latest book is The Storm of War: A New History of the Second World War, which was published in 2009 and reached No.2 on the Sunday Times bestseller list. Roberts is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an honorary Doctor of Humane Literature, a judge of the Elizabeth Longford Historical Biography Prize and he reviews history books for over a dozen newspapers and periodicals. His website is available here.

Reading Materials

Winston Churchill

  • The full published works of Sir Winston S Churchill (View)
  • Biographies
    • Martin Gilbert CBE, Churchill: A Life (1991) (View)
    • Roy Jenkins, Churchill (London : Macmillan 2001)


  • “Churchill’s address to The Free Trade League conference in 1904” (View)
  • “The British Parliamentary System In the Age of Churchill” (View)
  • “Why did The Economist favour free trade?” (View)
  • Peter Cain, ‘British Free Trade, 1850-1914: Economics and Policy’, Refresh 29 (Autumn 1999) (View PDF)


  • Professor Vernon Bogdanor, ‘The Legacy of Winston Churchill’, lecture delivered at The Gresham College 22 Jan 2015 (View)
  • “The Free Trade Versus Protectionism Debate”—Professor Frank Trentmann talks about the relationship between free trade and the budget and how the conflict between the ideas of free trade and protectionism shaped the 1909 budget (View)


  • Lord Digby Jones, ‘Great Lives: Winston Churchill’ BBC Documentary (Listen)


  • “Sir Winston Churchill: The Greatest Briton?” BBC iWonder (View)

Scholarly Articles

  • Martin Daurnton, Wealth and Welfare: An Economic and Social History of Britain: 1851-1951, (Oxford, 2007)
  • David Gladstone et al., Before Beveridge: Welfare before the Welfare State (London, 1999) (View PDF)
  • Anthony Howe, Free Trade and Liberal England: 1846-1946, (OUP, 1998)
  • W. R. Garside, ‘Party Politics, Political Economy and British Protectionism, 1919–1932’, vol. 83(269), pp. 47–65, (January 1998) (View)
  • ‘From Empire to Europe, Britain in the World Economy’, Kevin O’Rourke Discussion Papers in Economic History, 106 Nuffield College, Oxford, (2012) (View)
  • Patrick O’Brien and Geoffrey Pigman, ‘Free Trade, British Hegemony and the International Economic Order in the Nineteenth Century’, Review of International Studies, Vol.18(2), pp.89-113, (April 1992) (View)
  • Irwin Douglass, ‘The Political Economy of Free Trade: Voting in the British General Election of 1906’ The Journal of Law and Economics, Vol.37(1), p.75 (March 2014) (View)

About the History of Capitalism Series

This series of lectures, which forms part of the Legatum Institute's 'The Culture of Prosperity' programme, investigates the origins and development of a movement of thought and endeavour which has transformed the human condition. Capitalism's characteristic emphasis on freedom of trade and market expansion has encouraged social mobility, global exploration and intellectual curiosity. Wherever and whenever it has appeared across the world's continents capitalism has undermined monopolies, economic protectionism and restrictive practices. The series' lecturers therefore assess case studies in business history and the individual biographies of thinkers, writers and inventors as well as describing particular periods in the histories of cities, states and nations. Further information available here.