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It’s Time to Debunk the Churchill Myth

Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Anyone sentient at the time remembers how the nation stopped at the news of Sir Winston Churchill’s death, and engaged in an act of homage to the man who had led the salvation of Britain from Hitler and the Nazis. In many ways the act of homage has never ended, and there are, indeed, perfectly good reasons why it should not. Britain did face a mortal threat in 1940. Churchill, whose career up to that point had been littered with catastrophic mistakes and misjudgements, and was then aged 65, had nonetheless led the minority that correctly understood the menace of Hitler and the dangers of disarmament and appeasement. The two British prime ministers of the late 1930s, Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, chose to disregard him: partly because they had inherited a sense of Tory isolationism that made them want, above all things, not to involve themselves in quarrels with Hitler, but partly because they thought Churchill was simply on another of his bizarre hobbyhorses, and that his latest cranky obsession would end in the usual personal humiliation for him.

However, the humiliation would, in this instance, be theirs. Churchill had read Hitler and the Nazi threat exactly right, and the urgent need for national survival was perfectly suited to his greatest talents—those of the showman and orator, rather than the strategist. Once he had faced down his rival for the premiership, the appeaser Lord Halifax, he used those talents to articulate the spirit of anti-defeatism on behalf of the British people more effectively, passionately, and sincerely than anyone else could possibly have done.

He knew only too well how many in the British establishment were sympathetic to, or complacent about, Hitler and felt no need to challenge him. He foresaw the catastrophe that would ensue if Britain did not oppose the Nazi menace and, even worse, if she were invaded. He inspired the physical heroism of countless others and used these examples to motivate the civilian masses. In several speeches in the summer of 1940, when what he memorably called the finest hour was in fact the nation’s darkest hour, his rhetorical and literary gifts created a liturgy of hope and faith in a triumph for civilization and freedom against barbarism. At the moment when Britain, and the idea of liberty, needed it most, he provided the leadership without which both would have been sunk. He drove a people first to survival, and then to victory.

In 1965 his nation, and the world, recog­nized the debt to him and marked his passing accordingly. Two-minute silences were observed at football matches; 321,360 people filed past his coffin at his lying-in-state in Westminster Hall; the cranes in London’s docklands dipped their jibs as his funeral barge sailed down the Thames after his state funeral at St Paul’s, attended by the Queen and potentates from around the globe; there was a 19-gun salute and an RAF fly-past; he became the first contemporary commoner to appear on a British postage stamp and a five-shilling piece was issued bearing his image. No politician had ever had such respect and reverence shown to him on his or her death before, and none has since.

His was a political career that, apart from what happened during the Second World War, was of a length and scope that was, and remains, difficult to comprehend. Politics was in Churchill’s blood. He was a grandson of the Duke of Marlborough. His father, Lord Randolph, had been a controversial Tory MP and, even more controversially, briefly chancellor of the exchequer in the 1880s. After an undistinguished career at Harrow—which at least had the crucial effect of making young Winston realize that failure was something to be overcome and not to be crushed by—he was, following a spell in the army, first elected to the House of Commons in 1900, during the reign of Queen Victoria, and first served in the cabinet as president of the Board of Trade under Edward VII in 1908; yet he endured to be the present Queen’s first prime minister, and did not resign as an MP until the 1964 general election, held just three months before he died and a few weeks before his 90th birthday. Those facts of chronology, and the list of the great offices he held—not just prime minister, but chancellor and home secretary, among many others—further inspire the awe in which he, or rather his memory, is held, and help to create a picture of the unstoppable romance of his life.

But it is his indispensable and nation-saving achievement in 1940 that obscures so much else about him, with myth-suffocating reality. It diverts attention from all else that Churchill did before and after, and even discourages analysis of it. Worst of all, it discourages reflection on his management of the war, which, as anyone who has read the accounts of some of his closest colleagues—notably Sir Alan Brooke and Anthony Eden—will know, was much more hit and miss than conventional history usually has it. The effect of the often unquestioning idolatry with which he is widely regarded not only hinders us from evaluating Churchill properly but from forming an accurate assessment of the times in which he lived, and that he did so much to shape.

For anyone who bothers to think about him critically and in detail—something not accomplished by his latest hagiographer, Boris Johnson, whose self-regarding travesty of a biography was reviewed so devastatingly in these pages last November by Richard Evans—Churchill is immensely problematical: That pivotal motivational role in saving the country from Nazism inevitably clouds everything else about him. He had an unfortunate knack of finding himself on the wrong side of too many arguments, over things that usually did not require the benefit of hindsight to be understood. In the 1930s his dismissal of the idea of Indian independence seemed reactionary and inhumane even to many of his contemporaries, and his support for the plainly degenerate, weak and self-obsessed Edward VIII, though admirably motivated by loyalty, appalled so many of his contemporaries that it very nearly ended his political career. These misjudgements provided the background against which he was marginalized by Baldwin and Chamberlain when in his prime.

By the 1930s he had long been an intensely controversial figure, appearing sometimes as one who combined the worst sort of pre-Reform Act Tory arrogance and harshness with an occasional and deeply self-serving lack of principle: the latter apparently being a trait that so magnetically attracts the admiration of the present mayor of London, and other charlatans who piggyback on his greatness for the purposes of self-projection. After his years as a junior officer in the army, during which he took part in the last ever British cavalry charge, serving in the Sudan, he made a significant mark in journalism. He was taken prisoner by the Boers in 1899 in the second Boer War but escaped. At the khaki election of 1900 he began his political career, as a Tory. He left for the Liberal Party in 1904 when the Tories, under the influence of Joseph Chamberlain, who had left the Liberals in protest against the Irish home rule bill, started to move towards protectionism. That was fair enough: but moving back to the Tories after the collapse of the coalition in 1922, when the Liberal Party had divided, imploded and been eclipsed by Labor, was widely regarded as an act of outrageous cynicism, not least by those whom he was rejoining. Churchill deployed his considerable wit to gloss over this episode—“Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain amount of ingenuity to re-rat”—but a bad smell lingered in the Tory party for some time because of it. His father, Lord Randolph, possibly died of syphilis, and for much of his political career demonstrated great instability. At many junctures in his son’s career it seemed as though he had inherited this distressing characteristic.

He had fallen into what the aristocratic class from which he came considered bad company, forming a friendship with Lloyd George and seeming determined to exceed him in radicalism wherever possible. That, too, was no bad thing—Churchill deserves credit for his part in the Asquith government’s establishment of a basic welfare state—but much of his political activity came to take on an air of exhibitionism. His friendship with Lloyd George was not the first manifestation of this in politics. While a backbench Tory, he had joined the gang of Lord Hugh Cecil, son of the Marquess of Salisbury, who made it their business openly to attack ministers from their own side for perceived shortcomings and who became known as the “Hughligans”.

Such behavior was consistent with that of his earliest youth, so much so, that he would for some time give the impression that he had never grown up: Margot Asquith, writing when Churchill was nearly 40, recognized this trait in him frequently. He had often been bottom of the class at school when the good conduct marks were awarded and developed a habit of seeking attention, largely, it is believed, because of the neglect he endured from his parents. His father railed at him for being a failure when he twice flunked the entrance exams for Sandhurst. Much of the rest of his life was devoted to proving he was worthy of his father’s respect—for decades after Lord Randolph died, in fact—and to commanding regard by demonstrating a wide range of capabilities, whether as a soldier, a writer, a historian, a politician or a painter.

On public platforms Churchill frequently used language that, if not so inflammatory in terms of class war as that used by Lloyd George, was considered shocking by many in his social circle. And his conduct as a minister sometimes showed poor sense: Most famously, when a group of anarchists was besieged by the police in Sidney Street in the East End of London in the winter of 1911, Churchill, as home secretary, could not resist going down to the scene of the siege and standing in the police line, conspicuous in his silk hat and fur-collared greatcoat. As well as being evidence of his exhibitionism, it was indicative of how much he loved a fight, and needed to be present at the action. The idea of him as a warmonger, which was widely held by those who knew him in the run-up to the Great War and during its early stages, took hold because it appeared to be well-founded.

That was not quite the most controversial incident during his time at the Home Office. Even after the heroics of 1940, some in the labor movement continued to hate him because of his decision to send the troops into Tonypandy in 1910, when as home secretary he was alerted to the inadequacy of the local police in controlling rioting by striking miners. To be fair to Churchill, he did not want to send troops in, and held them back for as long as he felt able: but the decision in the end to commit them was held against him in South Wales for the rest of his life, and many on the left continue to view it as an unnecessary act of aggression and intimidation. He also deployed troops during the dock strikes of the summer of 1911, with a comparable effect on his public relations. Similarly, he had made no efforts to hold the police to account after the fighting on Black Friday in November 1910 between them and suffragettes around Westminster. It was also in this period in his life that he showed a close interest in eugenics, worried as he was about the physical degeneracy of “the race”.

Churchill initially acquired a reputation as a politician largely through his charisma and the power of his oratory, rather than because of any executive achievements. Despite his controversial reputation, he was put in charge of the navy in 1911 as first lord of the Admiralty. He continued to have a magnetic attraction to other fanatics, and came heavily under the influence of Admiral Lord “Jackie” Fisher, even though Fisher had long since retired as first sea lord. Sir John Jellicoe, the second sea lord at the time, wrote of Churchill’s inability to see his own limitations as a politician and a civilian. Churchill was responsible for expanding the navy before the Great War: but he was also one of the most fervent advocates of fighting that war. He changed his mind and then re-changed it about what to do with Ulster over the implementation of the Government of Ireland Act 1914, a squabble that was silenced temporarily by the outbreak of war in August that year.

Now Churchill had the war he wanted, and could start to deploy his navy. “Everything tends towards catastrophe and collapse,” he had said, writing to his wife the previous month. “I am interested, geared up & happy.” He micromanaged the navy in a way that no first lord had done before: So, when in September the Germans sank three British cruisers in the North Sea, with the loss of 1,459 lives, he began to attract blame. The previous day he had boasted that if the Germans did not send out their fleet it would be dug out “like rats in a hole.” He created the Royal Naval Division, his critics said, so he could have an army to command, and sent it to defend Antwerp, which, inevitably, he had visited first. When Antwerp fell he attracted more opprobrium. He wanted to be both general and politician, something the British constitution, happily, does not allow for.

This cast of mind was shown in the plan, inspired by Kitchener but executed with enthusiasm by Churchill, to sail a fleet through the Dardanelles to Constantinople, inspire panic in Turkey and cause that country to withdraw from the war. But the naval attack failed; a military operation to support it was a disaster; Fisher, whom Churchill had brought back as first sea lord—though he was then 73 and mildly unhinged—resigned and left Churchill exposed. The operation cost 46,000 lives, a quarter of them Australians and New Zealanders: one of Churchill’s biographers, Paul Addison, has described it as “a cross to which he nailed himself.”

He resigned from the Admiralty, secured a promotion to lieutenant colonel in the army, and spent a hundred days on the Western Front before resigning his commission and seeking to get back into politics. He came home not because he was deficient in courage, but as always because he was driven by ambition and thwarted in the conventional structure of a fighting army, where he was not in charge. He became minister of munitions in 1917 and then, as war secretary in 1919, sought to intervene against the Bolsheviks in Russia. He made a correct estimate of the barbarism of the revolutionary forces: but his colleagues vetoed his impetuous idea for large-scale direct intervention, which would have led to another generation of soldiers being slaughtered.

By 1924, the Liberal Party having ceased to be a force, he had persuaded the Conservatives to take him back. He became chancellor of the exchequer, and his complete ignorance of economics had catastrophic consequences. In 1925 he took Britain, its economic health and stature ravaged by war and its aftermath, back on to the gold standard at the pre-war fix of $4.86 to the pound. Sterling was overvalued: exports declined, deflation took root in the economy, the coal industry was crippled, and the General Strike ensued. Churchill had consulted a range of economists about the policy before implementing it, one of whom was John Maynard Keynes. Keynes warned him that pegging the currency in this way would have serious deflationary consequences, a sentiment Churchill chose to disregard. Keynes had his revenge by publishing The Economic Consequences of Mr. Churchill, the most devastating attack on him ever written because of the way it undermined Churchill both as a politician and as an intellect. Later, Churchill would observe that going back to the gold standard at the pre-war fix was the greatest mistake of his life. In the House of Commons, when he announced the move, he said that it would “shackle us to reality.” Unfortunately, it shackled Britain to a reality that had ceased to exist in August 1914. It was not the last time he would pursue a course dictated not by what was practical, but by what might create the semblance of the world in which he had flourished before 1914 and to which, for reasons of his own doctrine and beliefs, he wished to return. His reactionary ideas about India were part of the same mindset.

Once the Conservatives were pushed out of office in 1929 he began his “wilderness years,” and adopted resistance to Indian self-government as one of his main causes. It was at this stage that he described Gandhi as “a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Viceregal parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.” Such rhetoric turned Baldwin against him and ensured he did not serve in the National Government that Baldwin formed with Ramsay MacDonald in 1931.

The 1930s were a grim time for Churchill. He flourished as a writer and journalist, making some much-needed money – he always lived beyond his means, with not just his penchant for Pol Roger, cognac and cigars but also his acquisition of a fine country house at Chartwell in Kent – and apart from what he earned was happy to accept financial support from admirers in a way that would end a political career today. His marriage was, however, under strain, not because of any impropriety on his part, but because of the sense of neglect felt by his wife and her dislike for some of his circle of friends – notably the adventurer Brendan Bracken who, to Clementine Churchill’s disgust, did little to counter scurrilous rumours that he was Churchill’s illegitimate son. Churchill also had a difficult relationship with his own son, Randolph, who never successfully emerged from his father’s shadow and departed early down the road to alcoholism.

Churchill merited his return to government in 1939, but was, ironically, responsible for the fiasco of British intervention in Norway that brought down Chamberlain and made him prime minister. He had the good sense to form a coalition government, and to undertake a discreet purge of those who had been the strongest advocates of appeasement, whether politicians or officials. It took the Tory party some time to come round to him, displaying a loyalty to Chamberlainite methods that was finally punished in the Labour landslide of 1945.  In military terms, Churchill had learned from the mistakes of 1914-18. He took coun tless bold initiatives that paid off, and others that did not. A study of Alan Brooke’s diaries presents the irrationality and bluster that could make him so infuriating: yet these were the caprices not of a martinet, but rather of a man under the most almighty pressure.

It is hard to think of anyone else in that period who would have led Britain with such certainty of purpose and inspiration, and who had the qualities to handle our allies so well. The relationships Churchill formed with Stalin and Roosevelt were essential to the war having the right outcome, even if he was outmanoeuvred at Yalta, to the detriment of the postwar settlement in eastern Europe and the liberties of the nations concerned. Had Halifax and not Churchill become prime minister in May 1940, Britain would soon have become a satrapy of Nazi Germany. Churchill hated communism, and the accommodation he came to with Stalin was made in the national interest. His “Iron Curtain” speech, made the year after the war ended, showed his true feelings, and set the tone for the next four decades.

Ideally, Churchill would have retired, heaped with honours, in 1945. The postscript to his time in high office, his premiership of 1951-55, was undistinguished and bad for the country. His determination to keep Eden from succeeding him for as long as possible was not merely the Tory party’s private grief. It bequeathed the country, when Eden eventually took over, with a leader whose health, morale and judgement had all been worn down by a man who refused to leave Downing Street until his 81st year, despite having suffered a debilitating stroke two years earlier that was cleverly covered up by his family and colleagues, and whose knack of getting things wrong had reverted to its pre-war standard.

He was as always living in the past, uninterested in domestic affairs, and obsessed with restoring British greatness in a world that he still failed to realise had changed beyond his recognition.

These were not wasted years – his government met its pledge to build 300,000 houses a year, to replenish stock depleted by the war and to accommodate growing families – but they were largely fruitless ones.

Churchill pursued a colonial policy, notably in Malaya and Kenya, that refused to recognise the powerful movements to dissolve the British empire that existed in most colonies, or to assess the disproportionate costs in material, human and reputational terms of holding them. When he did eventually go, the Tory party he left behind him was anachronistic and fractured. Eden’s early departure would have been a blessing had he not been replaced by the intensely cynical Macmillan, who manipulated his party and public opinion to give him a handsome election victory in 1959, after which the contradictions and denials within the Tory party, and its hidebound, class-obsessed attitudes that it should have put behind it during the war, caused Churchill’s party to limp to defeat at the hands of Harold Wilson, bereft of any sense of vision whatsoever.

Churchill’s triumph against Hitler made him the recipient of unconditional deference after it. The Tories’ 1945 election campaign was farcical and offensive, with its comparison between Labour under Attlee and the Gestapo, and his party should have taken this as a warning that, for all the Tories’ and the nation’s gratitude to Churchill, the time had come to be put under new management. It was not an opportunity any of them was prepared to take.

Despite a record of failure and misjudgement that in any other politician would offset even the most considerable achievements, Churchill in death has become largely untouchable by all, apart from those who are dismissed as mavericks and sectarians. The myth keeps us from an honest interpretation of our history in the first half of the 20th century. The false and romanticised picture we have of him, created by his reputation from 1940-45, is a huge obstacle to true understanding.

In one aspect of his life, when the man met the hour, he was as outstanding as anyone in British history has been. In all others he was just another politician on the make, firing out opinions at random in the hope that one, now and again, would hit the target. He had a bellicosity that in all circumstances other than 1940-45 could be intensely dangerous, and that had its downside even in the fight against Hitler.

But we would best understand his indisputable greatness, and our enduring debt to him, by realising how his achievements came in spite of, not because of, his parti­cular character. The myth is too much. It is more important than ever to examine the reality of his life and works, and to try to get him in a true perspective.

This article was originally published by New Statesman.