Finest Hour 188, Second Quarter 2020
“The question is: what are the characteristics and features that make the great man so inspirational and so relevant?”
The Right Honourable David Cameron served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 2010 to 2016, the youngest holder of the office in 200 years. He led a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats for five years and a Conservative government following the general election of 2015. Mr. Cameron was Member of Parliament for Witney from 2001 to 2016 and leader of the Conservative Party from 2005 to 2016. Born in London, he was educated at Eton and Brasenose College, Oxford. Prior to entering Parliament, he worked on the staff of Prime Minister John Major.
As a Prime Minister living and working in Downing Street, you constantly feel the presence of Winston Churchill. His leather armchair meets you as you walk into the building. His portraits glare at you from the walls of the famous staircase. You take your place at the Cabinet table where he sat during the most vital moment in our country’s history, May 1940, when ministers debated whether to fight on against Hitler.
But stronger than the physical reminders of Churchill are the reminders of his legacy. It is a legacy that pervades not just No. 10 but our politics; not just our country but our world. And it inspires not just postwar Prime Ministers, but all those who learn about and live in a world shaped by his extraordinary achievements.
The question is: what are the characteristics and features that make the great man so inspirational and so relevant?
First, I think of the power of his oratory. He once said that those in Britain and around the world had “the lion’s heart” and he just “had the luck to be called upon to give the roar.” But he underplayed the impact of that roar, which galvanised a nation in the fight against fascism.
Second, his generosity of spirit. He believed in market economics, but he always saw need to lift everyone up, seeing not conflict but convergence between those two things. “Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse, pulling a sturdy wagon.” As ever, his aphorisms convey more than a hundred textbooks could.
Third, his breadth of vision. Yes, the NHS and welfare state were introduced by the Attlee government. But Churchill paved the way as part of the Liberal government of the early 20th century. He set the scene with Butler’s Education Act. And in 1944 he stated the government’s aim to ensure access to the best medical care for all by uttering those three words: “National Health Service.”
Fourth, his internationalism. The first PM to recognise the People’s Republic of China, the one to help realise the dream of a Jewish homeland, Churchill believed our role in foreign affairs was key to Britain’s success. For him, the pursuit of freedom transcended boundaries, believing that the US and UK would one day “walk together side by side in majesty, in justice, and in peace.”
Finally, I think of his inclination to take the long view. “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft,” he said. And one area of history by which he set great store was the work of his predecessors, studying Balfour and Asquith before he came to office, writing about his former bosses Baldwin and Chamberlain in his postwar memoirs. He learned from those who came before him, just as those of us who found ourselves walking the same corridors, sitting in the same chairs, learned from him. Which is why “Churchill’s Prime Ministers” is such a fine and fascinating subject for the pages of Finest Hour.