Finest Hour 141, Winter 2008-09
Editor’s Essay – Consistency of Principle: A Churchillian Characteristic
“Democracy is based on a number of fallacies, the grandest of which is to believe that public opinion is the sum of all individual wisdom. It assumes that individuals are capable of arriving at informed and balanced opinions, which may be true, but completely ignores the fact that when those same informed and balanced individuals come together in large numbers, logic and reason are often cast aside, and any gaps left in the framework of opinion are filled with raw, undisciplined emotion.
“Politicians don’t believe in country any more. Or conscience. Only political convenience. You talk about being anchored to your principles, but then the wind changes so you pull up anchor and sail off in some new direction….You stand for election with stars in your eyes, but the moment you get elected they put you in blinkers so you don’t get lost going through the voting lobby.”
—Michael Dobbs, Whispers of Betrayal, 2000
Larry Arnn, President of Hillsdale College and a Churchillian scholar since the 1970s, when he worked for Sir Martin Gilbert on the official biography, is a perpetual educator. A recent chat with him helped me better to understand the tasks we face in developing Churchill Centre educational programs.
“Churchill left such a record, and so carefully crafted it himself, that I think many scholars fail to get their hands around the vast acreage,” Dr. Arnn said. “For instance, so few have grasped that Churchill saw in Socialism, National Socialism and Communism aspects of the same phenomenon: a challenge to liberty. It is really quite incredible that he could have reached such a sharp understanding of a danger that is with us yet.
“History is a cheap way to get experience, and this fellow Churchill told us the most about history. He was the only great statesman of recent times, perhaps for many times, who was able to crystallize his thought through eloquent writing. The downside is that so few realize the depth to which he thought about these things. The upside is that this is a tremendous opportunity for The Churchill Centre: to offer Churchill as an avenue to save the teaching of history.”
Eighteen years ago in Finest Hour 71, we published an article proposing the establishment of what became The Churchill Centre, then called a “Center for Churchill Studies.” Much of it was inspired by Larry Arnn:
“There are two, equally important, reasons to study Churchill. The first is acceptable to everyone: his involvement with 20th century history was crucial and remains highly relevant to present-day international affairs. The second has to do with Churchill’s philosophy of statesmanship—which is, however, far more controversial….The vast majority of modern academics don’t like Churchill, and dismiss him from consideration. He held different views than they hold. He stands for different principles than they. He upheld a regime, a way of life, that is contrary to all they believe.”
We are familiar with the popular arguments. Events not people, isms not persons, make history. Hitler would have been stopped with Chamberlain or Attlee in charge. Halifax and Alf Landon would have done exactly the same as Churchill and Roosevelt. Only “national interests” govern the behavior of national leaders, and so on.
But there was more to Churchill than ambition, national interests, or a desire to save the Empire, though all of those counted with him. Much more than Roosevelt, Churchill thought about governance among free peoples. There is ground to believe that Churchill realized before Roosevelt, though he never said it publicly, that the Empire and British predominance were winding down—and that World War II really was, as John Charmley wrote, “The End of Glory.” He certainly realized it by 1943, sitting at the table with Roosevelt and Stalin at Teheran, when he spoke of “the poor little English donkey who was the only one, the only one of the three, who knew the right way home.” Yet there was nothing he would not do, no British resource he would not tap, to win the war against Nazism.
But this approach in World War II was not in any way atypical of Churchill throughout his life. Repeatedly, sometimes mistakenly, he would place principle before expediency, and certainly before party, pursuing brave and sometimes self-destructive courses with single-minded intensity and genius—genius being nicely described by Albert Einstein as “the ability to take infinite pains with every detail and to integrate each part into a masterful whole.”
Speaking in July 1936, in the wake of Hitler’s reoccupation of the Rhineland (see this issue, page 16), Churchill warned again of the German menace. And then he said, in words that are extraordinary for any politician: “I would endure with patience the roar of exultation that would go up when I was proved wrong, because it would lift a load off my heart and off the hearts of many Members. What does it matter who gets exposed or discomfited? If the country is safe, who cares for individual politicians, in or out of office?”
Consistency—not always of tactics (vide Russia) but of principle—is what makes Churchill unique: a statesman Larry Arnn believes ranks with Washington and Lincoln in history. As do I.