April 3, 2009

Churchill Tops the List


With eighteen months left until the millennium,  Churchill tops the list of  Personality of the Century. It’s time to get the machinery in gear for his selection. There will be a spate of such contests, and they’re good for provoking arguments, if nothing else. So,  look around the world and size up the nominees.

Is there anyone in the last hundred years of provincial politics who is worthy?  Hardly. Anyone in Canadian history? We weren’t major players. What about American history? Maybe a couple of presidents and an industrial titan or two could qualify. The rest of the world? Gandhi deserves consideration and so does Mao Tse-Tung, based on the number of lives they changed-or ended. But there is only one name that jumps off the page after even the most casual riffle through the last ninety-eight years, and that’s Sir Winston Churchill, who died over thirty-three years ago.

A famous war correspondent in 1900, the highest-paid journalist in the world by the late 1920s, a disgraced  First Lord of the Admiralty, a party-changing politician, and  a political outcast for a full decade before World War II, he  led a half-dozen lives before his finest hour arrived in 1940,  when he was already 64 years of age. There was a period of time in the war’s early going when Churchill single-handedly made the difference. Want to send shivers down your spine?  Imagine what the world would be like today if he hadn’t  been around.

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He bowed out of public life in 1964, although he hadn’t been active since 1955, and died in 1965 at age 90, but his memory is alive and well today on the Internet and elsewhere. There are organizations devoted to his place in history in Great Britain, Australia, the United States and Canada (including three healthy independent Churchill Societies in Vancouver, Calgary and Edmonton).

Churchill’s gravesite is so heavily visited that the slope where it lies is sinking and is being restored. Here are a few of the quotations and anecdotes involving him:

May 13th, 1940: He addressed the House of Commons after becoming Prime Minister three days earlier, following eight years of ignored warnings about Nazi Germany. “I would say to the House, as I said to those who have joined this government, I have nothing to offer but  blood, toil, tears and sweat. We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I will say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us ;to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: Victory — victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory there is no survival.”

Six days later he broadcast to Britain and the world: “Today is Trinity Sunday. Centuries ago words were written to be a call and a spur to the faithful servants of Truth and Justice: ‘Arm yourselves, and be ye men of valour, and be in readiness for the conflict; for it is better for us to perish in battle than to look upon the outrage of our nation and our altar. As the Will of God is in Heaven, even so let it be.”

It is a measure of the man that he understood himself as perfectly as he did others, about whom he held little back. On Clement Attlee, Labour Party leader and postwar Prime Minister, he said (privately): “a modest man, with much to be modest about.” On Conservative leader and prewar Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin: ‘Occasionally he stumbled over the truth but hastily picked himself up as if nothing had happened.”

In 1964, a nine-year-old Colombian girl made up a birthday card and addressed it simply ‘To the Greatest Man in the World.” It arrived at 28 Hyde Park Gate in time for Churchill’s 90th birthday. Earlier’ a young visitor had walked into Churchill’s study at Chartwell while he was composing a speech. “Are you really the greatest man in the world?’ the boy asked. ‘Of course,” Churchill shot back. “Now buzz off.”

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