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Churchill the Great? Why the Vote Will Not Be Unanimous

by Douglas J. Hall

Eight of Finest Hour’s nine articles nominating Churchill for Time magazine’s designation as “Person of the Century,” which concluded in the last number, were written by Americans, Canadians and an Australian. Churchill was British, why the discrepancy? For one thing, non-Britons tend to see the Churchill of the world’s stage: statesman, sage, even saviour. In Britain he may be seen as all those things, and more, but invariably with some modification, arising from his record as a party politician. And, it must be said, that is where the water begins to get muddy.

In most true democracies politicians are, in the nature of things, often at odds with up to roughly half the electorate at any one time. Over his long career Churchill certainly pushed his luck in that respect. By transferring his allegiance from the Conservatives to the Liberals and back again he was successively at odds with all of the people for at least some of the time.

The Labour Party was formed in 1900, the very year that Churchill was first elected to Parliament, and it was always his sworn enemy. It might be said that the Labour Party and Winston Churchill grew up together, in the political sense of course. If Churchill had his finest hour in 1940, the result of the 1945 general election clearly illustrates who had taken over the lion’s roar. There is a popular theory that the growth of the Labour Party in Britain had much to do with the perceived need of working people and trade unionists to unite in force in order to provide a sufficient counterweight to Winston Churchill. If that is so he has a lot to answer for.

Churchill alienated thousands of soldiers over the Gallipoli fiasco in World War I (they dismissed as “whitewash” the findings of the Royal Commission on the Dardanelles). His subsequent appearance in the trenches of the western front displayed what many saw as an officer over-promoted, untrained, improperly dressed and plied with regular luxury food parcels from Fortnum & Mason. After three generations that enmity still survives powerfully in many British families.

Churchill’s stance in the 1930s resulted in a widely held view that it was his “warmongering” which provoked Hitler into inflicting another war upon a British population which was still bearing the scars of the last one and aching for peace. He roundly condemned as “abject, squalid and shameless” the Oxford Union motion “That this House refuses…to fight for King and Country”; but there is clear evidence that at the time the students were probably much closer to the pulse of public opinion. The NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) factor applied and Churchill’s warnings about Hitler’s aspirations in far away places with strange sounding names were not widely seen as a matter of closely relevant concern until at least 1939. Indeed the same factor prevailed in the USA right up until December 1941.

“Good old Winnie” was by no means a universal cry during World War II, either amongst the beleaguered civilian population or the often reluctant soldiery. Many squaddies who had responded to Churchill’s call to “defend our island” were seriously disaffected by their experiences on the other side of the world in Japanese POW camps.

The result of the 1945 general election stands as clear testimony to all of the above factors. Some Churchillians may loftily dismiss such notions, but it is a hard fact that they were genuine, heartfelt and commonly expressed at the time. Their ripples still disturb the surface of the muddy water.

Churchill’s career record as a parliamentarian was that he contested twenty-one elections and won sixteen but hardly ever gained an overall majority of the votes cast until he arrived at the safe seat of Epping/Woodford. He certainly did not win every House of Commons division. “Remember Winston Churchill” reads the tablet in the floor of Westminster Abbey (perhaps circumspectly placed adjacent to the tomb of the Unknown Warrior). Well, people do, and their remembrances are coloured either by their own experiences or those handed down by their progenitors.

In the case of members of the very youngest generation there may in addition be some rather warped conceptions arising from a debatable curriculum being taught in certain schools and colleges. Learned dissertations on how Churchill got things wrong at various times continue to pour forth from obscure pedagogues at certain dubious educational establishments. Whilst the latter can be ignored by those of us of sound mind, they can, and I’m afraid do, create the wrong impression amongst the recently enfranchised generation.

Countering all that is the Churchill legend: the bulldog, the lion, the deeds of valour, etc. Thus the popular culture and the basis of public opinion is a continually evolving perspective, rarely fully expressed in any academic thesis but more likely to be discovered during discussions in a private drawing room or a public house. When the British vote has been counted, certain transatlantic lobby groups may have to prepare themselves to deliver indignant expressions of dudgeon.

How would Churchill fare in a British vote on Personality of the Century? It could be a very close call indeed. Opinion polls canvassed in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh do not provide much comfort: memories are exceptionally long in Belleek, Tonypandy and parts of Dundee. The Labour Party’s block vote, currently at its highest level since 1945, is a formidable obstacle. Only vestiges of that generation of disaffected World War I soldiery remain, but their feelings are often still strongly held by their descendants.

What would Churchill himself have made of the Century Sweepstakes? He had something to say about “personalities” in his speech in the House of Commons on 29 July 1941. He was dealing with a proposal that an all-powerful Minister of Production should be appointed to oversee supplies for the Admiralty, the Air Ministry and the War Office. Clearly with tongue in cheek he said: “I have not been told who is to be this superman who, without holding the office of Prime Minister, is to exercise an overriding control over the three departments of supply and the three ministers of supply. Where is this super-personality…when you have decided on the man, let me know his name, because I should be very glad to serve under him.”

Churchill’s question was rhetorical since he already considered himself that super personality. In which case a nomination as mere personality should hold no terrors for him. But would he appreciate being awarded the distinction in respect of an epoch he described so bleakly? At the University of London on 18 November 1948, Churchill said: “The advantages of the nineteenth century, the literary age, have been largely put away by this terrible twentieth century with all its confusion and exhaustion of mankind.” (Personality of the terrible, confusing and exhausting century?)

Finest Hour 101 reported that a poll of BBC (Radio 4) listeners had placed Churchill behind Shakespeare in a poll for Britain’s greatest personality of the past thousand years. The vote was close: 11,717 to 10,957. Shakespeare isn’t in the running for “Personality of the Century,” but that Winston Churchill may not be regarded as the greatest Englishman is understandable. In “The Growth of British Policy” Sir John Seeley observed, “History is past politics, and politics present history.” Perhaps the British people need to have their past and present politics sufficiently steeped in history to allow a mature, well-judged and dispassionate assessment of a man who was engaged in that greatest of all polemic occupations.

Churchill also had certain problems of his own. He tended to infuriate his friends as much as he alienated his enemies. In many respects he may be his own worst enemy when it comes to assessing his whole career in terms of greatness. In history the reputation of many an aspiring “great” has been wrecked by a single blunder, and Churchill undoubtedly committed more than a few of those. Thus, whilst Churchill’s achievements were prominent, his perceived failings were also highly visible, and quite often on the grandest scale.

If William Shakespeare’s forty-four plays justify his place as the greatest Englishman, should not Winston Churchill’s more than forty books and vast journalistic output ensure his recognition on literary accomplishments alone? After all, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Certainly his literary achievement was prodigious, and all the more remarkable for being effected on a part-time basis within a political career which would have fully stretched most men. Frederick Woods concluded in Artillery of Words that Churchill “wrote rattling good stuff; rousing and romantic…using rolling phrases, remorseless rhythms and thunderous adjectives.” Doesn’t that sound a lot like Shakespeare?

I discussed the result of the BBC poll with a graduate in Shakespearean studies who made some interesting observations. Shakespeare did not acquire his greatest fame until the last twenty-five years of his life (vide Churchill); it was only then and in the years immediately after his death that the tributes appeared (vide Churchill). Throughout the following century Shakespeare was largely discredited (in Churchill’s case the jury has been out for only thirty-four years so far) and it was not until the closing years of the eighteenth century, almost 180 years after his death, that Shakespeare’s reputation was restored and his works began to enjoy the popularity they enjoy today. If this is a precedent, Churchillians may be in for a long wait!

In the event that Winston Churchill were to win the accolades of Time, I suspect that his response from heaven might read, with divine tongue in exalted cheek of course, along similar lines to his message to the Swedish Academy in 1953 in respect of their award of the Nobel Prize for Literature: “I am proud, but I am also awestruck at your nomination. I do hope you are right. I feel we are both running a considerable risk and that I do not deserve it. But I shall have no misgivings if you have none.”

I have no misgivings: Winston Churchill has my vote. But I cannot speak for my compatriots. In a speech on 5 April 1906 Churchill said: “…all men are equal and voting power, as far as possible, should be evenly distributed among them.” He later said (24 April 1933) that “…the English are…more truly united than any people in the world.” Hmm…

“But be not afraid of greatness,” Shakespeare’s Malvolio said in “Twelfth Night”: “some men are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Winston Churchill was certainly not afraid of greatness. Some have said he was born great but that would be dismissed by most as a flawed judgement. Born to be great, perhaps? Many have argued that he achieved greatness during his lifetime. It remains to be seen whether the mature judgement of history will irrefutably thrust greatness upon him.

Whilst we are waiting for the verdict, it seems appropriate to conclude with yet another quote from Shakespeare, whose Hamlet recited some lines about his father which a majority of future generations of Englishmen may yet come to say of Winston Churchill:


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