Politicians Who Claim Churchill’s Mantle Embody His Worst Traits
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- One of Mary Soames’s favorite stories about her father, Winston Churchill, dated from his extreme old age. She asked whether he nursed any regrets about his extraordinary life — for instance, that he had not won a Victoria Cross for courage on the battlefield. After a pause, he responded slowly and with deep feeling: “I … should have liked my father … to have lived long enough … to see that I made something of my life.”
By contrast, Mary Soames’s friends, among whom my wife and I were proud to be numbered, are today thankful that this enchanting woman, who died in 2014, did not live long enough to see her father become the focus of a new and bitter controversy in his native land.
For several years, critics have been attacking what they see as Churchill’s racism, spasmodically defacing his statues. Earlier this year, Priyamvada Gopal, a fellow of the University of Cambridge college which bears the Last Lion’s name, held a panel discussion on the premises under the heading, “The Racial Consequences of Mr. Churchill.”
This fall, there was a high-profile row when the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust, a charity, announced a change of name to the Churchill Fellowship. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, among other critics, held that the renaming was to lower the profile of his illustrious predecessor.
British writer Geoffrey Wheatcroft has just published a weighty tome, “Churchill’s Shadow,” which argues that for all the prime minister’s wartime achievements, his legacy has been disastrous. Above all was his prompting Britain to aspire to an intimate relationship with the U.S. rather than to embrace Europe with conviction.
Wheatcroft recoils in dismay — as do I, as the author of “Finest Years,” a more enthusiastic account of the prime minister in World War II — from the manner in which Churchill’s name continues to be invoked in support of successive foreign policy disasters generated by the likes of Prime Minister Tony Blair and Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump.
British and American conservatives never tire of denouncing parleys with foreign rivals as “appeasement,” a word indelibly associated with the 1938 Anglo-French surrender to Hitler at Munich, famously repudiated by Churchill. But in foreign affairs, appeasement — often better called compromise — can be a sensible policy. No grown-up politician should aspire either to enfold himself in the mantle of Churchill or to portray an enemy as a lineal descendant of Germany’s fuhrer, as Bush did Iraq’s Saddam Hussein.
It seems weird that the argument about Churchill rages most angrily in his own country: A member of Johnson’s government recently accused the charity of pandering to “a noisy woke brigade” in its attitude toward the wartime prime minister. This week, a Times columnist reported the removal from the men’s washroom of a London hotel its quirky sound loop of Churchill delivering his wartime speeches.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., Churchill’s reputation appears invincible. Andrew Roberts’s fluent but unskeptical 2018 study, “Walking With Destiny,” sold many more American copies than British ones.
A decade ago, I gave the annual Churchill memorial lecture at Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri — scene of the prime minister’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech — to a far more reverential audience than I would expect to address on my side of the Atlantic. An opinion poll showed that many British schoolchildren suppose Churchill was a fictional character. They grow up with little or no idea of what he did, despite the best efforts of such recent movies as 2017’s “Darkest Hour.”
U.S. admirers become ever more eager to claim Churchill (whose mother was born in Brooklyn) as their own, while younger British people become progressively more uncomfortable with his memory. He was a hero who enjoyed wars, and today we inhabit what is sometimes dubbed the “post-heroic” age, in which there is widespread revulsion toward both battles and enthusiastic warriors.
I find myself in the middle of this debate. There seems little doubt that Churchill was the greatest Englishman of the 20th century, one of the greatest of all time. Equally, however, he was wrong about many things.
He sponsored the disastrous 1915 Dardanelles campaign in Turkey; opposed self-government for India; supported King Edward VIII in the 1936 abdication crisis. In the 1920s, he sometimes spoke well of Italy’s fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini. His biographer Robert Rhodes-James was not wrong when he subtitled his 1970 account of Churchill’s pre-World War II political career, “A Study in Failure.”
Like most of his contemporaries, Churchill was an unembarrassed racist — I prefer the word tribalist — who described anticolonial campaigners as “savages armed with ideas.” By the time of World War II, many younger British people already recognized that the game was up for the Empire. Not the prime minister, however. In the face of his deplorably callous attitude to the 1943 Bengal Famine, which caused the deaths of at least a million people, his Colonial Secretary Leo Amery wrote in his diary, “On the subject of India, Winston is not quite sane.”
Amery and other cabinet colleagues were appalled when Churchill justified his refusal to divert shipping to move relief supplies by saying that Bengalis would “just have to tighten their belts as our own people have done.” In truth, British wartime calorie intake remained far above that of Indians, even those in regions not stricken with famine.
Thousands of Indians were commissioned as officers in Britain’s wartime Indian Army, but the prime minister refused to allow British private soldiers to be subjected to their orders. He expostulated against “the humiliation of being ordered about by a brown man.” His view of Indians, not to mention Africans, remained until the end of his days that of the Victorian lieutenant of Hussars he once was.
Even on the race issue, however, it seems important to take a nuanced view, as both extremist camps in the Churchill legacy debate decline to do. On Sept. 2, 1898, aged 23, he participated in the charge of the 21st Lancers at the battle of Omdurman in Sudan, against the dervish army of the khalifa. Afterward, he penned newspaper dispatches and a classic 1899 account of the campaign, “The River War.”
In his writing, Churchill displayed compassion for an estimated 13,000 wounded dervishes who, following the British victory, were either killed out of hand or left to die in the sand. The young officer’s view was far more enlightened than that of most of his contemporaries, and earned the enmity of British commander, General Herbert Kitchener. Churchill’s modern critics note, however, that in the 1902 republishing of “The River War,” his strictures on Kitchener were rewritten and moderated, reflecting the author’s new status as an embryo politician.
I marvel at the magnanimity he later displayed toward other defeated foes. In December 1940, when Britain was on its knees, he contradicted assertions that a beaten postwar Germany must be pastoralized, saying “We [have] got to admit that Germany should remain in the European family … Germany existed before the Gestapo.” Not many British people, in the circumstances of those days, were capable of such generosity of spirit.
As for great men and women, unless we are willing to accept at face value legends or myths passed down to us about the saints, we acknowledge that all of us are blends of good and bad, as was Churchill. An important aspect of his genius as a war leader, as I describe it in my 2009 book, was an obsessive focus on the struggle, to the exclusion of all else. He believed that he could only aspire effectively to exercise his function as Britain’s warlord if he devoted himself single-mindedly to the defeat of Germany, Italy and Japan.
His refusal to interest himself in postwar reconstruction was a source of exasperation to his ministers, especially when it became plain that the allies would prevail. The future was a matter of passionate concern to most British people. Yet in November 1942, when the Beveridge Report was published, laying the foundations for Britain’s welfare state, the prime minister treated its proposals with disdain.
It came as no surprise to most of Britain’s commanders that at the 1945 general election the nation, and indeed a majority of its soldiers, sailors and airmen, voted Churchill out of office. They perceived that he was not the right leader to build the new, kinder Britain they wanted. Just before the poll, our best wartime general, Bill Slim, visiting 10 Downing Street after his victory in Burma, said bluntly: “Well, prime minister, I know one thing. My army won’t be voting for you.”
During Churchill’s June 1945 campaigning tours, he was everywhere cheered by people deeply grateful for what he had done for them since 1940. Yet this did not affect the decisive majority decision to vote Labour. Most British people believed, surely rightly, that whatever Churchill’s past achievements, his time was done.
It was bad news for him, as well as for Britain — a point emphasized by Wheatcroft — that Churchill was foolish enough to remain Conservative Party leader, though already 71 in 1945, and to preside over a feeble 1951-55 Tory government.
When I lecture about the old prime minister to audiences on either side of the Atlantic, I am dismayed by how often questioners demand: “Where is today’s Churchill? Why do we no longer have national leaders of his stature?”
I respond, by no means facetiously: We should be thankful that, however grave our problems, they are not of a kind to demand such a leader in 2021. We are no longer, thank goodness, defending the beaches, as were our forefathers in 1940.
Yet none of the above criticism should diminish the rightful gratitude of the British people, and of the world’s democracies, for the services rendered by Churchill in the five years of his war leadership.
Roy Jenkins concluded a fine 2001 Churchill biography by saying that when he embarked upon it, he considered William Ewart Gladstone to have been Britain’s most distinguished prime minister. “I have changed my mind,” he wrote. “I now put Churchill, with all his idiosyncrasies, his indulgences, his occasional childishness, but also his genius, his tenacity, and his persistent ability, right or wrong, successful or unsuccessful … as the greatest human being ever to occupy 10 Downing Street.”
I share Jenkins’s view. I acknowledge Churchill’s colossal faults but view them alongside his colossal virtues. Why is it so difficult for others to accept that the middle ground is where truth lies about most things in life?
Most of us recoil from the myopia of the woke campaigners, who want Churchill’s statue removed from London’s Parliament Square. And we also deplore the attempt by British and American neoconservatives to hijack the old man’s memory in support of disreputable, nostalgic white-tribal causes.
The towering lesson of history, in the eyes of most of those who practice professionally the study of the past, is that we must judge every man and woman by the standards of their times, not those of our own. Winston Churchill adorned our planet between 1874 and 1965. He has nothing more relevant to teach leaders today about the conduct of our respective national polities than does Alexander the Great. We should dismiss as charlatans those in Washington and London who pretend that he has, while remaining prodigiously grateful for much of what he did while he was around.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."
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