June 20, 2015

Finest Hour 100, Autumn 1998

Page 45

By Frances James


Bringing nothing into this world, it is certain that we can carry nothing out. Men measure us by what we leave behind. This can be great or little, simple or subtle; this much can be sure: it can be nothing material. That Promethean spirit, returned now to clay in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection unto eternal life, left much. It is a varied legacy, as what human bequest is not? For the sake of our children, and of generations yet unborn, we must fasten soon and firmly upon the essence of it. The outer wrappings are splendid enough; what lies inside is an infinitely precious gift to mankind. Our peril lies in this: that we may keep on saying the right things for all the wrong reasons: that the appearances by their own dramatic brilliance may blind us to the paradox they enfold.

Those wrappings are real: the example of the great war leader, the captain-general, the master strategist. Within lies this paradox of truth: Winston Churchill was a man of peace—prepared at all times to fight for it. His example as a peacemaker is his true bequest to us.

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There is nothing passive about Peace, in either the seeking or possession of it. Its quest demands eternal vigilance, positive thought. Its possession demands resolute preparedness to defend it. He who would disturb the peace never sleeps. Nor does the man of peace passively await his assaults. If you want peace, you must defend it, seek out the disturber, detect him from afar, nail him down, vanquish him.

The ebullience of youth understood, there was no inconsistency between Churchill’s devotion to peace and his first profession of arms. That purpose soon became manifest in the subordination of sword to pen, which marked his long life. The first halting, painful speech in the Mother of Parliaments, at the turn of the century, did more than show the spirit which overcame defects of voice and vision: it revealed the mind to which “patriotism” meant peace, and the defence of the realm: never war or wanton aggression.

What he did for more than half a century thereafter was almost uniquely significant; how he did it is something people will discuss for ever; why he did it is of transcendent importance to us all. If the “what” and the “how” make a mixed bag, upon which the professional “debunkers”—the intellectually imperceptive, carrion crows of our time —have already started to gorge, the “why” of it will afford them no sustenance. That he erred on so many and such great issues is not the point at all. Consider them: not the Dardenelles or Antwerp; but Russia in 1919, or India after 1947. The real point is that any one such error would have written finis to the political life of an ordinary man, as would his treatment of numberless individuals: Wavell, Reith, Greenwood, Auchinleck, de Gaulle, Nils Bohr (whom he seriously thought should have been imprisoned!). Such was the patent magnanimity of this man that none who understood it bore him any resentment.

There is a corollary to that prophetic insight of the Thirties, the unceasing flow of intelligence from the Continent, the unflagging support of his friends like Eden and Vansittart, the unremitting opposition to forces represented by the Chamberlains and Baldwins and their satellites, including Antipodean word-spinners. If he was right, they were wrong. It follows as the night follows the day. And he was right. Here is the example to our children: that this man fought on for the truth, oblivious of the tide.

He did not succeed to the Prime Ministership of a nation united in purpose on that day in 1940. When Chamberlain went, Winston Churchill was not even first choice for the succession. Those there were, the comfortable, who would certainly have capitulated there and then, rather than have him. Their descendants are still among us, unreformed. When we speak of him to our children, let us speak of them, too; without malice, with firmness and measured magnanimity, as he did. But let us not forget them and what they stand for, lest we spurn his bequest to us, betray all he stood for, and drop the vital lessons of history in the rubbish bin.

To praise God for his life and example, to cherish and revere his memory, is not alone enough: it is empty, unless we see clearly what we praise and revere in truth, and unless the same prophetic spirit and action prevail in our children’s lives forever.


Mr. James’s eulogy was published in The Anglican, Sydney, Australia, on 27 January 1965. It is republished here, in our series of articles nominating the Personality of the Century, by kind permission of his son Alfred, of ICS Australia.

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