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Sinclair, Archibald Henry Macdonald, first Viscount Thurso (1890–1970), politician, was born on 22 October 1890, the only son of Clarence Granville Sinclair (1858–1895) and his wife, Mabel Sands (d. 1890). His father, a lieutenant in the Scots Guards, was the eldest son of Sir (John George) Tollemache Sinclair, third baronet, of Ulbster, Caithness. His mother, a noted beauty of her day, was the daughter of a wealthy New York businessman, Mahlon Sands. Sinclair's mother died a few days after his birth, and five years later his father also died, leaving the young Sinclair to experience a rather itinerant childhood as he moved about between the houses of various relatives who tried to provide a home for him. Much of his time was spent with his grandfather Sir Tollemache, with his uncle, Archdeacon William Macdonald Sinclair, canon of St Paul's, or at Temple House, Marlow, Buckinghamshire, the home of his uncle and aunt—Lieutenant-General and Mrs Owen Williams—where he found himself at the heart of fashionable society, for Williams was on excellent terms with Edward VII.

Churchill's aide

Educated at Eton College and at Sandhurst, Sinclair entered the army in 1910 in the 2nd Life Guards, and on the death of his grandfather in 1912 he succeeded to the baronetcy and with it the ownership of some 100,000 acres at the northernmost tip of Scotland. In the days before the First World War there were few more glamorous young men in society than Archie. His good looks, charm, and romantic highland aura were spiced with a touch of daredevilry that led him to experiment with a primitive aircraft which he flew before breakfast. Asquith was captivated, and so was his daughter, Violet; but much the deepest friendship which Sinclair made at this time was with Winston Churchill. At heart Sinclair grew up a somewhat shy and reserved young man with no great liking for the crowded events of the social calendar. Churchill in a different way was also a solitary figure. But he and Sinclair at once discovered that they had a vast amount in common. Both felt that circumstances had deprived them of full parental affection, though both had been sustained by a devoted governess. Both had American mothers and swashbuckling Yankee grandfathers. Both were by training cavalry officers with a shared enthusiasm for polo and flying. It was even the case that both had a slight speech impediment. Sinclair in his early twenties was turning towards politics and ready to trust in an older man as his guiding star; Churchill in his late thirties was already a curiously paternal figure delighted to discover a young disciple. The letters which he and Sinclair exchanged during the First World War are remarkable on both sides for their expression of private feeling, and read like those of a mutually devoted father and son. Sinclair could write to Churchill in April 1916 of ‘my keen longing to serve you in politics—more humbly but more energetically than I have been able to in war’ (Gilbert, 1494).

Sinclair served on the western front throughout the war. In February 1915 he was appointed aide-de-camp to the Liberal MP and former secretary for war J. E. B. Seely, commander of the Canadian cavalry brigade. In January 1916 Churchill, whose career had been ruined for the time being by Gallipoli, took charge on the western front of the 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers, and for four months Sinclair served as his second in command. ‘He is most courageous conscientious and hard-working’, wrote Churchill to his wife, ‘but he hates every hour of it [the war] with a profound loathing’ (Gilbert, 1490). Sinclair ended the war as a major in the Guards Machine-Gun regiment. In 1918, while still on service in France, Sinclair met and after a whirlwind courtship married, on 18 May, Marigold (1897–1975), the daughter of Angela Forbes (who had obtained a divorce from her husband, Marigold's father, Lieutenant-Colonel James Stewart Forbes), who was running a military canteen in Le Touquet. They were married at the office of the British vice-consul in Boulogne. It was the beginning of a long and happy marriage which produced four children: Catherine (b. 1919), Elizabeth (1921–1994), Robin [see below], and Angus (b. 1925).

After the war Sinclair remained for a time in the role of aide to Churchill, serving as his personal military secretary at the War Office (1919–21), and as his private secretary at the Colonial Office (1921–2). But in 1922 he entered parliament as MP for Caithness and Sutherland, taking his stand as a Liberal supporting the Lloyd George (and thus Churchill) wing of the party. In the House of Commons he built up a reputation as a skilful opposition speaker, while playing a part in the comprehensive overhaul of Liberal policy which Lloyd George had initiated. A convinced Scottish home-ruler, he was chiefly responsible for the Liberal ‘tartan book’, the Scottish version of the party's ‘green book’ on agricultural reform.

Liberal politician in the 1930s

During the second Labour government of 1929–31 the Liberal Party began to disintegrate, a process accelerated by the formation of Ramsay MacDonald's National Government in August 1931. One section of the party, led by Sir John Simon, favoured outright opposition to the Labour government in alliance with the Conservatives. In the economic crisis they were prepared to jettison the historic Liberal creed of free trade, and welcome the National Government as the basis of a permanent association with the tory party. The Liberal Nationals or Simonites were gradually to lose their separate identity and become Conservatives in all but name. Sinclair, who had accepted the thankless task of Liberal chief whip in November 1930, took the same line as the Samuelites, led by Sir Herbert Samuel, who were prepared to support the National Government as a temporary expedient while seeking to maintain the long-term independence of the Liberal Party. They accepted office in August 1931, Sinclair becoming secretary of state for Scotland (he did not have cabinet rank until November). In October they agreed to fight a general election in alliance with the Conservatives, and when the cabinet decided in January 1932 to introduce protection it was announced that the Samuelite ministers would remain in the government under an agreement to differ. No doubt the satisfactions of office were great, but Samuel and Sinclair, who together comprised the Liberal high command, were committed first and foremost to the independence of the party and the ultimate restoration of free trade. In the summer of 1932 a series of discussions took place at Sinclair's home in Caithness which led to the resignation of the Samuelite ministers in September, in protest against the conclusion of the Ottawa agreements.

The post of secretary of state for Scotland had offered Sinclair little scope, coming as it did at a moment of financial stringency. A greater opportunity, at first very effectively disguised, presented itself in November 1935. Samuel, who had led the party since 1931, lost his seat in the general election, and Sinclair was prevailed upon to serve in his place as chairman of the parliamentary party. Sinclair was reluctant to accept the job, and the correspondence preserved among his papers helps to explain why. The Liberals were a deeply demoralized party. Their by-election performance since 1931 had been disastrous, and in 1935 their strength in the Commons was further reduced to twenty-one MPs. There was no easy solution at hand, but enthusiasts were very ready to blame the quality of the party leadership, and there were many prima donnas at hand with schemes to revive the party's fortunes. With all such prickly individuals Sinclair dealt patiently but firmly, anxious not to discourage the efforts of anyone with something to contribute to the cause. In this he relied heavily on the advice and support of his old friend Harcourt Johnstone, generally known as Crinks, who maintained liaison between the whips' office and the constituencies. Although Sinclair could do little to revive the Liberal vote, he succeeded in turning the parliamentary party into a force more powerful than its numbers indicated. From 1935 onwards the crisis in Europe overshadowed all other political issues. The Baldwin and Chamberlain governments pursued a pragmatic policy of piecemeal concessions to Mussolini and Hitler. The Labour Party, while adopting a high moral stance of opposition to fascism and aggression, refused until late in the day to accept the need for rearmament. Under Sinclair the Liberals (though never wholly united on such questions) sought to combine support for collective security through the League of Nations with pressure for a strong air force and secure defences. They were therefore the advocates of a genuine middle way which became increasingly influential, and was indeed adopted by Churchill in his campaign for ‘arms and the covenant’. In the House of Commons Sinclair and Churchill worked closely together: in condemning the Munich agreement or urging an understanding with Russia they were of one mind. They also combined to seek the establishment of a Ministry of Supply.

Secretary of state for air

At the outbreak of war in September 1939 Chamberlain invited Sinclair to accept office on behalf of the Liberals, an invitation which Sinclair declined. In the critical Commons debate of 7–8 May 1940, which led to Chamberlain's resignation, Sinclair joined in the attack, and on 10 May his old friend and ally Churchill became prime minister. Sinclair was appointed secretary of state for air, a post he retained until the dissolution of the coalition in May 1945.

Sinclair was never one of the major figures in the coalition government. With the prime minister himself directing the chiefs of staff, and the conduct of the war from day to day, the service ministers took little part in military decisions. On a more personal level Churchill continued to treat Archie as a subaltern and social companion, asserting a dominance that Sinclair never seriously contested. Nor did Sinclair possess a strong power base. The Liberal Party was small and faction-ridden. Furthermore Churchill on coming to power had stripped the Air Ministry of its most important function, the production of aircraft, and handed it over to a separate Ministry of Aircraft Production under Beaverbrook. Sinclair was compelled to spend much of his first year in office defending his own department from repeated attempts by Beaverbrook to seize more of its powers.

Sinclair also incurred the enmity of the commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Sir Hugh Dowding, who blamed him for failing in May 1940 to resist Churchill's demands for the dispatch of fighter squadrons to France, and later never forgave him for the manner in which he was retired from his command in November 1940. It was fortunate for Sinclair that he found a strong ally in the new chief of air staff, Sir Charles Portal. The two men quickly struck up a relationship of trust and friendship. Under Portal's tuition Sinclair was also persuaded to abandon his initial preference for precision bombing in favour of area bombing, with the aim of destroying the morale of the civilian population. In March 1942 he took a prominent part in the struggle to prevent the Admiralty diverting bombers from strategic bombing to long-range reconnaissance duties in the battle of the Atlantic, and obtained Churchill's consent for a resumption of the full bombing offensive. When Lord Cherwell circulated his famous memorandum of March 1942 advocating the ‘dehousing’ of the German population through the bombing of residential areas, Sinclair commented that he found the argument ‘simple, clear and convincing’. In recent years the weight of opinion has been strongly critical of the strategic bombing offensive on the grounds that it was ineffectual and wasteful of resources which could have been better employed. The use of bombing to terrorize and kill civilians has also frequently been condemned on ethical grounds. Sinclair relied on the common-sense judgement that a weapon so destructive as bombing must also be decisive; any secretary for air who thought differently would not have survived the wrath of the air marshals for long. Nor did the moral issue cause him any difficulty: he believed that any measure necessary for the defeat of Germany was justifiable, a severe view which most people accepted in the heat of the conflict. None the less Sinclair thought it prudent not to admit the true nature of the bombing offensive in public, in case opposition was stirred up on grounds of conscience and the morale of bomber crews affected. In a number of speeches Sinclair asserted that strategic bombing was directed primarily against industrial targets, not against residential areas, and that civilian deaths were the by-product and not the objective of the campaign. The most controversial episode of all, the Anglo-American destruction of Dresden in February 1945, was the outcome of direct instructions from Churchill. Churchill soon began to regret this episode and issued a minute (later withdrawn) describing the attack as ‘a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing’ (Webster and Frankland, 2.112).

Retirement and peerage

Between the wars Sinclair had been able to pay regular attention to his constituency of Caithness and Sutherland, the largest geographically in the United Kingdom. He took care to visit his constituents on annual summer tours, and otherwise kept in touch through his party agent Captain Barrogill Keith, who was also the factor of his estate. The war years cut Sinclair off, and he paid for this in the general election of 1945, coming bottom of the poll in a remarkable result in which only sixty-one votes separated the three candidates. This was in effect the end of Sinclair's career. After failing to be re-elected in 1950 he accepted a peerage in the first honours list of the post-war Churchill government, and was created Viscount Thurso of Ulbster on 10 April 1952. Plans for him to re-enter politics as Liberal leader in the House of Lords were thwarted by illness and he did not take his seat until 1954. For three years he was able to play a prominent part in the debates of the upper house, but it was his fate to spend the remainder of his life as an invalid.

Sinclair enjoyed the world of politics and worked hard at it, but he did not live for his career as Churchill did. He built around himself a secure and happy private life in the company of his wife and children. Except in the war years he guarded his leisure hours, and most of all the weeks devoted every summer to house parties of family and friends at Dalnawillan Lodge, deep in the wilds of Caithness. He enjoyed grouse shooting, won recognition as a very fine salmon fisherman, and played polo and rode regularly until he was about forty. He carefully supervised the accounts of his estate, and kept in touch with his tenant farmers, but was not by inclination an agriculturist. If his heart was in the highlands (he was lord lieutenant of Caithness from 1919 to 1964), his home and his vocation for most of the year were in the south-east. To the life of politics he brought both a clear view of his function and certain definite gifts. He maintained that it was not the job of a politician to take on the role of expert in any particular branch of knowledge, but to make use of the knowledge which experts possessed. The task of the politician was to organize, to persuade, and to co-ordinate. John Colville wrote:
Sinclair had an air of distinction. With his fine features, black hair, and swarthy complexion he resembled a Spanish grandee rather than the Highland chieftain that he was. His delivery as a speaker was slow. He had a stammer which attracted attention and lent emphasis … During the Norway debate leading to Neville Chamberlain's fall, his attack was notable for both its venom and its originality. (Colville, 172)
In the Commons Sinclair was an effective speaker, alert to the atmosphere of the house, and skilfully casting his arguments in terms which were likely to exercise the maximum appeal. At the Air Ministry Sinclair was to prove less effective: a conscientious administrator dominated by Churchill and Portal, ‘Sinclair did what was required of him’, his biographer writes, ‘and did it well’ (De Groot, 205). Sometimes persuasive, but seldom powerful, Sinclair was a gentlemanly figure with two consistent loyalties which shaped his contribution to public life. He was faithful to Liberalism and helped to ensure the survival of the party during a period in which it was threatened with extinction; and although he did not always agree with Churchill, he was a friend and admirer through all the ups and downs of Churchill's career.

Sinclair was appointed CMG in 1922 and KT in 1941, and was sworn of the privy council in 1931. He died at his London home, Fotheringay House, Montpelier Row, Twickenham, on 15 June 1970, leaving his wife, two daughters, and two sons.

Sinclair's elder son, Robin Macdonald Sinclair, second Viscount Thurso (1922–1995), landowner and businessman, was born on 24 December 1922 in London and educated at Eton College and at New College, Oxford. During the Second World War he served as a flight lieutenant in the RAF, undertaking photographic reconnaissance missions in the Far East. After the war he read agriculture at Edinburgh University. He married, on 14 February 1952, Margaret Beaumont Brokensha, widow of Lieutenant Guy Warwick Brokensha, Fleet Air Arm officer, and elder daughter of Colonel Josiah James Robertson, of Caithness; they had two sons, John (b. 1953) and Patrick (b. 1954), and a daughter, Camilla (b. 1957). A Liberal, he was a Caithness county councillor, a Thurso town councillor, and in 1966 an unsuccessful parliamentary candidate for East Aberdeenshire. After inheriting the viscountcy and estates in 1970 he became one of Scotland's leading landowners. He promoted new industries and other ventures in Caithness. Most failed, but Caithness Glass succeeded. He was criticized for supporting the Dounreay nuclear reactor and Nirex, the nuclear waste organization. He was fairly active in the House of Lords, for some years living on a houseboat near Richmond during its sittings. He was lord lieutenant of Caithness (1973–95), president of the Boys' Brigade (1985–93), and a close friend of the queen mother. He died of leukaemia and emphysema on 29 April 1995 at his home, Thurso East Mains, Thurso, Caithness. He was survived by his wife and their three children, and was succeeded as third viscount by his son John, who in 2001 was elected Liberal Democrat MP for Caithness, Sutherland, and Easter Ross, thus becoming the first hereditary peer to be elected to the Commons following the House of Lords Act of 1999.

Paul Addison


G. J. De Groot, Liberal crusader: the life of Sir Archibald Sinclair (1993) · R. Douglas, The history of the Liberal Party, 1895–1970 (1971) · C. Webster and N. Frankland, The strategic air offensive against Germany, 1939–1945, 4 vols. (1961) · CAC Cam., Thurso MSS · P. Harris, Forty years in and out of parliament (1947) · M. Gilbert, ed., Winston S. Churchill, companion vol., 3/2 (1972) · J. Colville, The Churchillians (1981) · private information (1981) · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1970) · WW · WWW · Burke, Peerage · Daily Telegraph (1 May 1995) · The Times (2 May 1995) · The Independent (2 May 1995) · d. cert. · CCI (1996) [Robin Macdonald Sinclair] · d. cert. [Robin Macdonald Sinclair]


CAC Cam., personal and political corresp. and MSS · priv. coll., papers · TNA: PRO, MSS as secretary of state for air, AIR 19/73-557 |  Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Gilbert Murray · CAC Cam., Churchill MSS · CAC Cam., corresp. with Sir E. L. Spears · CUL, corresp. with Sir Samuel Hoare · IWM, corresp. with Sir Henry Tizard · JRL, letters to Manchester Guardian · King's Lond., Liddell Hart C., corresp. with Sir B. H. Liddell Hart · NL Wales, corresp. with Clement Davies · Nuffield Oxf., corresp. with Lord Cherwell · Parl. Arch., corresp. with Lord Beaverbrook; letters to David Lloyd George; corresp. with Herbert Samuel


photographs, 1904–c.1914, Hult. Arch. · J. Lavery, oils, before 1914, priv. coll. · A. John, oils, c.1920–1924, Scot. NPG [see illus.] · O. Birley, oils, 1930–1939?, priv. coll. · S. Sutherland, sculpted head, 1936, Thurso · W. Stoneman, three photographs, 1936–43, NPG · W. Dring, pastel drawing, 1939, IWM · D. Foggie, chalk drawing, 1939, Scot. NPG · N. Parkinson, photograph, c.1955, NPG · W. Dring, oils, IWM

Wealth at death  

£39,745: probate, 27 Nov 1970, CGPLA Eng. & Wales · £830,026.55—Robin Macdonald Sinclair: confirmation, 6 March 1996, CCI