Finest Hour 129, Winter 2005-06
Churchill: A Man Who Believed
By John Ramsden
Dr. Ramsden, is Professor of Modern History at Queen Mary College, London, Vice Chairman of The Churchill Centre’s academic advisers and author of Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and His Legend Since 1945. Reprinted by courtesy of the author from The Tablet of 29 January 2005 which also provided the artwork.
2005 was the fortieth anniversary of Churchill’s funeral. He was not a conventional believer, but the Judaeo-Christian tradition inspired his devotion to the cause of good against evil.
On Sunday, 30 January 2005, we were much reminded of the fortieth anniversary of the funeral of Winston Churchill. For the best part of sixty years, Churchill’s towering personality and enormous zest for life and for politics had illuminated British public life, to that memorable funeral, a televised-around-the-world pageant of British ceremonial and of the Anglo-American special relationship, when he for the last time played the leading part. It had indeed been joked about Churchill years earlier that he so longed to be the central character in every drama that when he went to a wedding he wished he was the bridegroom and when he went to a funeral he longed to be in the coffin. In 1965, after careful planning, and in a funeral with lots of soldiers, leaders from all over the world to pay homage, military bands, and the Stars and Stripes flying alongside the Union Flag throughout London, he had his final wish.
On that day, there were many tears and great nostalgia for the 1940s—Churchill’s, and (it was frequently said) the British people’s, Finest Hour, when he had twice given the lion roar of freedom in the fight against totalitarianism, against Hitler in 1940 and against Stalin in 1946. That Churchillian roar had been one of the things that made people believe in the triumph of freedom, even when the days were dark and victory seemed so far away.
When he died it was confidently expected that historians would soon cut him down to size, and so revise his reputation negatively, since so much of his reputation was linked with the personality of the man himself, more indeed than was generally appreciated; historians have recently shown just how hard he worked at creating his own image, as a relentlessly autobiographical spin-doctor before the idea had been invented. David Reynolds’ recent In Command of History (2004) shows how far his best-selling memoir, The Second World War, was crafted for that purpose, and how far indeed the British political and military establishment connived at the process, scenting the chance to put an authorised version of Britain’s World War II before a worldwide reading public under Churchill’s name. To an extent Churchill has remained ever since a useful asset in British international policy: President George Bush, a Churchill admirer who keeps a bust of Sir Winston in the Oval Office for inspiration, had it as a loan from the British government.
The truth is, though, that Churchill has remained in the English-Speaking World the dominant figure from the 20th Century, and revisionist historians have done little to dent his image. When Time magazine did not make him “Person of the Century” there was a storm of objections. Two years later, when the magazine made Rudolph Giuliani its Person of the Year for 2001, it re-endorsed all the qualities for which Churchill had seem to stand, which had seemed out of date before the war on terror began. Giuliani on 9/11 derived great comfort from remembering Churchill and 1940, quoting him freely over the next days and weeks to reassure New Yorkers.
We may ask from where Churchill himself derived his motivation, and just what it was that he believed in, so that he could so effectively communicate with the people he led as war leader and cold warrior. Churchill was, as a man of his time, class and education, saturated in the Christian tradition, and his speeches were at least as full of references, quotations and allusions to the Bible, the Prayer Book and Christian hymns as they were to English literature. His verdict on the decolonisation of Africa and Asia was drawn from Isaiah (“Thou hast multiplied the nations and not increased the joy”), and his support for harsh punishments for offences committed against children from St. Matthew (“Whosever shall offend against one of these little ones…”). Often such quotations were mere acts of conversational bravado, just like his fondness for quoting at length songs by Gilbert and Sullivan, or English and American poetry, but on occasion they could have deeper significance.
Many noticed, for example, the emotional pull exerted by his first wartime radio broadcast as Prime Minister, beginning with the reminder that it was Trinity Sunday*, so evoking the shared community of speakers and listeners. and implicitly identifying the British cause with Christianity against Godless Nazi evil. It is hard to imagine any politician making such an appeal today—or most of his audience understanding it.
Arguably, Churchill relied more on such Judaeo-Christian writings than on secular literature, for although his History of the English-Speaking Peoples made virtually no reference to Shakespeare or the major poets—though he occasionally quoted them as a literary flourish. This was despite the title of the books, and although he discussed at length the King James Bible and Cranmer’s Prayer Book, he made favourable references to The Pilgrim’s Progress, and noted with satisfaction that all these Christian texts had been carried across the Atlantic by the Pilgrim Fathers and so translated into North America the same language and beliefs, “an enduring link, literary and religious, between the English-speaking peoples of the world.”
Churchill had then a great respect for the Christian tradition as a factor of continuing contemporary relevance, and he invariably deprecated attempts to downgrade that tradition, for example in the contentious 1920s Commons debates about a modernised Anglican prayer book. He had been brought up in the 1880s firmly within the Anglican tradition that had then barely changed for two centuries. In his post-1945 short story, The Dream, when he seems to meet the ghost of his father while dozing over a painting, he instantly responds to Lord Randolph Churchill’s question about his religion by saying he is “Episcopalian.”
His direct involvement with the Church was though at best semi-detached. He did not find its easy to find time for the selection of Anglican bishops when he was Prime Minister (though he bristled if this was noticed by his staff), and once said that he was not a pillar of the Churchill but more like a buttress—he supported it from the outside. There was in 1951 a press photograph of Churchill, the other party-leaders and their wives attending a Church service to launch the general election campaign— those were the days! He was caught on camera looking extremely bored, though that may be only because he was for once in his life having to listen to somebody else talking, without even the right of interruption.
Churchill was not a Christian believer in any conventional sense. Archbishop Fisher of Canterbury thought that WSC “had a very real religion, but it was a religion of the Englishman. He had a real belief in Providence, but it was God as the God with a special care for the values of the British people.” Fisher recalled that for Churchill, the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral surrounded by the fires of 1941 nevertheless had an acute appeal that was both emotional and national. Churchill had given orders that St. Paul’s must be saved from the bombers at all cost, even if it meant sacrificing other nearby buildings, and when damage was actually done to the Cathedral by incendiaries, care was taken that the news was not reported by the press. Just as his speeches in 1940 appealed to the common language and literature, so the round dome of St. Paul’s, not unlike the bowler-hat and high forehead of Churchill himself, stood for the tradition in which he asked the British people to put their faith.
What Churchill seems never to have had was a belief in a personal God. He joked as he aged that he was ready to meet his maker, and speculated as to whether the Almighty was looking forward to their interview with equal pleasure; but he did not in fact believe in an after-life, except perhaps as perpetual sleep in surroundings of peaceful, black velvet. Extensive government planning for his funeral had the bleak operational code-name “Operation Hope-Not.”
What Churchill did believe in was himself, fate, and his personal vocation to leadership. He wrote that when he became Prime Minister in 1940, he felt that he was “walking with destiny,” and that all his past life had been a preparation for that hour and that task. He was indeed burdened with an almost megalomaniacal self-belief, even as a young man, and this largely explains his early unpopularity among army contemporaries and ministerial colleagues who found him far too bumptious for his own good.
It was self-belief that kept him going through all the buffets of his first forty years in public life, when every ladder was followed by a lengthy snake, a switchback ride that would have led any lesser man to throw in his hand, choose another career, or retire. He was after all almost 65 when war came in 1939, the age at which most men would have chosen a quiet life.
But not Winston, who was raring to go and convinced that he was the only man for the job. As indeed he was, for it remains extremely hard for the informed historian to imagine any scenario without Churchill as Prime Minister in which Britain would have fought on in 1940 and finished among the winners in the Second World War. And without Britain fighting on, it is hard to imagine the scenario in which totalitarianism would have been defeated at all—at least without a very lengthy period of the utmost horror all across Europe.
Believing in himself as he did, he found within the capacity to make the British people believe in themselves too, a crucial historical act that even today can be cited to cynics as proof that individuals can and do make a difference. “We are all worms,” he had remarked to Violet Bonham-Carter with theological correctness thirty-four years earlier, “but I do believe that I am a glow-worm.”
*From 1 Maccabees 3:58-60, in the Protestant Apocrypha. This is part of the King James Bible Churchill knew, but not in more recent editions of the Bible. See “Wit & Wisdom,” FH 111. —Ed.