Finest Hour 115, Summer 2002
By Robert Courts
What Churchill Should Mean to People My Age
I am always asked why at my age I’ve become interested in Winston Churchill. People look at me with bemused indulgence when I talk about him, or whenever my enthusiasm surfaces, which it does often. How can such a young man be so interested in a historical figure—great, certainly, but as far removed from me, and as irrelevant, as King Henry V?
I cannot give a precise time when my interest took hold, or say precisely why it did. I can give a very good explanation of why Churchill’s life and legacy are of striking relevance and utility to young people today, if they take the trouble to learn about him.
My earliest contact with Churchill must have been 1980s World War II documentaries. I remember, through the veil of time, a gruff, defiant, vaguely angry man growling streams of liquid words that struck me more powerfully than anything I had ever heard. In school I wrote an admiring essay about Churchill and a kindly teacher lent me his copy of William Manchester’s The Last Lion. I devoured this weighty tome in days. My class was later presented with a copy of Churchill’s own paean to youth, My Early Life—for no other reason, I think, than because my teacher wanted us to read it. We certainly didn’t study it in any formal way. But reading that book at the age of fourteen set me off.
I have since read My Early Life at least ten times, and am still astounded by its wit and charm, its breadth of thinking, and above all by how much Churchill managed to pack into his life—the early years in particular. As he says: “Twenty to twenty-five, those are the years. Don’t be content with things as they are.” There can be no better example and inspiration to young people of how to go out and get what you want.
Churchill shows better than anyone, historical or contemporary, that if you want something badly enough, you can get it. He wanted to join the Army: it took him three tries and a near-fatal accident en route, but he made it. He wanted to fight in active operations, and left no stone unturned until he did. People will say, even today, that he was a pressuring medal-hunter. But it was his single-minded drive, determination, and perseverance that made him succeed.
He packed so many things into his life: he did all the things he wanted to do and was never held back by anything, neither by convention nor accepted possibility. He was a brave soldier, an outstanding politician, a writer of the first degree, a respected historian, a painter of talent, and to top it all, a loving family man. Who says it is not possible to do all these things?
His lesson—focus and succeed—can be applied to whatever path one takes in life: military, politics, writing, law, business, teaching. How admirably stands the example of Churchill against those of all the micro-celebrities who tower over today’s society.
Churchill is the prime example of someone who, in Tennyson’s words “[drank] life to the lees,” and thoroughly enjoyed it. As he says himself, “I cannot but return my sincere thanks to the high gods for the gift of existence. All the days were good and each day better than the other.” There was a man who knew how to wring the most from his allotted span.
Churchill is rightly famed for his “never give in” attitude, and I always come back to this inspiring philosophy. His attitude can be applied far outside the circumstances in which he spoke, in 1941, to the boys of Harrow School: “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” It was sound advice. Young people all over the world would do well to follow this advice: persevere, persevere, always keep trying.
Much other advice can be found in Churchill’s writings and speeches. I remember as a young boy being particularly moved by a sentence in My Early Life: “Let me counsel my younger readers to beware of dislocated shoulders.” I was astounded that this towering individual should actually care about what happened to the likes of me. But youth, its predicament and its fate, were subjects close to his heart.
At Harrow he said, “Sometimes imagination makes things out far worse than they are; yet without imagination not much can be done. Those people who are imaginative see many more dangers than perhaps exist—but then they must also pray to be given that extra courage to carry this far-reaching imagination.” What better exhortation, encouragement and reassurance can there be to people who are facing the daunting decisions of life?
Similarly, in My Early Life, there is much sound advice for those on the beginning of the road: “Don’t take No for an answer. Never submit to failure. You will make all kinds of mistakes, but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her.” It is advice, both reassuring and inspiring, that I have tried to follow.
I admire Sir Winston’s independence of thought and action. As a schoolboy, he refused to turn to the East whilst in Church because he deemed it a Popish practice.* As a Member of Parliament, he followed his personal convictions, even to the extent of changing parties. Young politicians of the future would do well to add a pinch of independence to their strategies. Again in the 1930s, Churchill pursued the deeply unpopular cause of responding to the Hitler threat. It is difficult so many years later to understand just how unpopular his message was. It kept him out of office for ten years.
Admittedly his independent and controversial stand over India and the Abdication did him harm, along with the enmity felt towards him by Conservatives for his move to the Liberals years before. That however was beside the point: the issues on which one chooses to make a stand are up to the individual’s conscience.
The trendy argument among too many of my peers is that Churchill was an old reactionary who clung to ideas past their time, and resisted the future. In fact he embraced the future.
He practically invented the tank, diverting naval funds to its development because the Army felt that the future lay with the horse. He personally sponsored naval aviation, taking so great an interest as to learn to fly himself One could easily imagine his enthusiastic support of the fax machine, which Alistair Cooke once reminded a Churchill conference sparked the fall of Communism. (“A spark coming from God knows where,” as Churchill had predicted forty years beforehand.) Surely he would endorse the Internet, though undoubtedly he’d have trouble with its technicalities.
Churchill set up Labour Exchanges, forerunners of the Job Centre for the unemployed, and secured labour concessions still in force today. With astonishing prescience he foretold the German advance in 1914 and the atomic age nine years before Einstein warned President Roosevelt of its implications. Churchill urged the creation of a United Europe in eminently rational terms: “Sane and instructed people should find no difficulty in reconciling national and international duties, just as a good citizen can reconcile his duty to his family and to his town, to his country, and to the state. All men are necessary to one another. The only limits to human progress are those that are made by our own shortcomings.”
One could quite easily put those words into the mouth of a modern politician and not find them out of place. Yet they were spoken in the 1920s, and in the interconnected digital age of today, we are still struggling to put them into practice.
Young people today can draw much from the skills Churchill possessed. “Study history, study history,” he famously urged. “In history lie all the lessons of statecraft.” He was a living example of the importance of learning properly to speak and write English . At no disadvantage by his lack of university training, he went on to make his living by writing, won the Nobel Prize for Literature, became a master of his craft, and saved civilisation by his use of words. Could there be a greater example of the importance of learning English and history?
Churchill was a fine leader, and no one should be deluded into thinking that leadership is a skill required only in politics, or on a battlefield. Whilst those are the most obvious venues, exactly the same principles—the need to earn respect, to inspire and to motivate your followers—are applicable in other walks of life.
Any organizer or leader must provide direction and guidance. In teaching, one needs to gain the respect of one’s class and to inspire students to learn. The situation may be different, the skills may be called something else—but it all comes down to leadership. And here Churchill was sublime.
Above all, the greatest lessons young people can learn from Winston Churchill were his belief in the benevolent force of fate, that in the end, “all will come right”; and in the importance of being true to oneself. He knew that he could not remain in a party with which he did not agree. He knew he could not hold office while simultaneously warning of the Hitler war to come. He could not tolerate being in a situation where he did not belong. He was determined and industrious, forward— looking and innovative, independent and brave. What better role model could there be?
Mr. Courts, 23, training to work as a barrister, is a member of ICS (UK) living in Balsall Common, near Coventry, Warwickshire.
*See My Early Life, at the end of the chapter entitled “Childhood.” I am not sure of the origin of this practise, nor have I ever observed it. It is definitely not Church of England, but may have been practised by one of the High Church groups, which are almost Catholic in their form and services. (WSC writes that he shared a Low Church preference with his nanny, Mrs. Everest, and was sure Everest would regard facing east as “Popish.”)