Saturday, 24 January 2015

Lest We Half-Remember – ‘The Other Churchill’

by Simon Lemieux

Quite rightly, today (24th January, 2015) we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of one of Britain’s greatest politicians, Winston Churchill. But amid all the accolades to this ‘Greatest Briton’ is there another Churchill who also should not be forgotten, Churchill the failed strategist, enemy of trade unions, reactionary imperialist and one who stayed on in the Commons after his best years were behind him?  

Churchill was for much of his career (and here 1940-5 was very much the exception) a divisive figure viewed by many as a party traitor and by others as positively Neanderthal on matters such as India and its demands for independence.  This piece is not intended to be balanced or to take away in any way his immense contribution to the war effort in 1940-5; it is, however, meant to highlight the other aspects of his career and to encourage us to see him as the consummate and extremely long-serving politician that he was, with all the good and bad that comes from that. Also by necessity, it is a far from complete or detailed analysis of his career.

Churchill the Liberal "rat"
(with Lloyd George)
(wiki commons)
So where is the ‘other Churchill’? Firstly let’s look at Churchill the political traitor. Here is a politician who defected not once but twice, quitting the Unionists (Conservatives) in 1904 and then transferring back to the Conservatives in 1924 commenting himself that  "anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat." In part it was fear of the left and communism that motivated his second switch (the first was over free trade), but, had the Liberal Party been on an upward trajectory in the early 1920s, might he have stayed on-side?

Then there is Churchill the ‘enemy of the working class’. Having overseen some important social reforms in the 1906-10 Liberal Government, he was at the forefront of efforts in the period 1910-11 as Home Secretary to crush strikes by miners in South Wales. He was also, lest we forget, from the political elite, an aristocratic family and a moneyed background.  Interestingly (and not unlike a few MPs since) he went on a speaking tour throughout Britain and the United States after first getting elected to Parliament, raising £10,000 for himself (about £940,000 today), and also in 1923, acted as a paid consultant for Burmah Oil to lobby the British government to allow that company to have exclusive rights to Persian (Iranian) oil resources. He was always (or at least until 1940 at any rate) regarded with hostility and suspicion on the Left and among the trade union movement.

As First Lord of the Admiralty,
Churchill presided over the disaster of Gallipoli,
which nearly destroyed his career
(source: Telegraph)
There is also ‘Churchill the strategist’, and a failed one at that. He bears (and to his credit accepted) much of the blame for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in 1915, a failed effort to take Turkey (Germany’s ally in the war) by means of a badly planned, though bravely executed, amphibious landing at Gallipoli. This is often highlighted by military strategists as a very good reason and case study of why politicians should not get involved in the finer details of military planning.

When it comes to Empire, Churchill was also far from being a clear-sighted visionary. This is especially true in his approach to India in the 1930s. Churchill opposed Gandhi's peaceful disobedience revolt and the Indian Independence movement in the 1930s. He also reportedly favoured letting Gandhi die if he went on a hunger strike.  During the first half of the 1930s, Churchill was outspoken in his opposition to granting Dominion status (i.e. some self-government) to India. He was also a founder of the India Defence League, a group dedicated to the preservation of British power in India. The ‘winds of change’ with regard to our ability to hold on to an unaffordable and increasing untenable Empire seem not to have been present in his political antennae at that time. Surely this was a case of being a ‘Die-hard’ on the wrong issue at the wrong time?

Labour landslide in 1945
Then finally, there is the party leader who led his party to one of its greatest ever election routs in 1945. The country wanted change, a ‘New Jerusalem’ and a ‘land fit for heroes’ (Mark 2); Churchill was unable to offer anything really to compare with Major Atlee’s welfare state based heavily on the Beveridge Report.  

When he regained office in 1951, most historians tend to agree that his record as a peacetime Prime Minister was mediocre – incidentally it also saw the introduction of prescription charges in the NHS. Yet having handed over the premiership to Eden in 1955, Churchill refused to retire entirely from politics, and stood twice more for his Woodford constituency in northeast London serving as an MP until nearly 90, yet attending the Commons increasingly rarely, preferring to relax at his country house in Kent or on the French Riviera. Is part of a successful career knowing when to quit?

inspirational war leader
But for his undeniable contribution during the Second World War, his political career would have been marked down as definitely 2nd XI, not Premier League (to mix up sporting terms), with errors and mistakes more than balancing out any concrete achievements. In the end, and rather unusually for a politician, his ‘finest hour’ was towards the latter part of his political career when many had written him off. For once, in our ‘darkest hour’, he was indeed the right man in the right place at the right time. His qualities of stubbornness and well-tuned words (see Laura Burden's article on Churchill's literary gifts) did give hope to a nation surrounded by powers that had succumbed to the Nazi war machine and blitzkrieg. He was crucial as a symbol of defiance and unalloyed patriotism. So, perhaps Churchill’s is a story of the perils and joys of a long life spent in politics, where the earlier mistakes and miscalculations are overshadowed in the public perception in favour of a symbol for national unity and determination. Yet it is ironic, though not necessarily undeserved, that a man who frequently caused division and his own fair share of mistakes, is ultimately commemorated in such a way.

Allow me to end with a personal anecdote. In in my own earliest days, Churchill caused a small degree of family division. Apparently I watched his state funeral live on TV – a maiden aunt had decided this would be good for me; as a very (!) young baby I was in no position either to argue or assent. My mother, however, thought it a daft idea, not because she was ‘anti- Churchill’, but because she couldn’t see the point for one of such tender an age – she also never entirely saw eye to eye with my aunt! The point is, perhaps, that we should not view Churchill entirely through rose-tinted spectacles but as a ‘warts and all’ professional politician which is fundamentally what he was.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting article. With 'free trade' and being apprehensive of union power, he was surely way ahead of his time? (considering we now operate free trade agreements with large segments of the world, and the great power of the unions were decimated in the 80s.

    On Gallipoli, he did feel personally responsible for this disaster - it actually triggered him to return to the field of warfare because he felt he owed it to those who had fallen in his name, and himself.


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