Richard Vinen

Blood, Toil, Tears & Brexit

The Churchill Myths


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Studying the British recollection of the past is like rummaging around a junk shop in which the proprietor has piled up dusty objects without any sense of their varying antiquity, value or significance. The cult of Winston Churchill illustrates this. His name was given to John Winston Lennon (born during the Liverpool blitz) and to Denis Winston Healey (born in 1917 and named by a father who wanted to reassert his faith in Churchill after the fiasco of the Dardanelles). The name Winston became common in the Caribbean and was given to Winston Silcott (born in Montserrat in 1959 and wrongly convicted in 1987 of murdering a policeman during a riot). Churchill would have despised Lennon, opposed Healey and expressed his desire to see Silcott hanged in vivid, probably racially charged, terms.

Sometimes it seems as though Churchill can be evoked in almost any context and by almost anyone. A brief Google search yields, among other things, ‘Six supply chain related lessons from Sir Winston Churchill’. Donald Trump is said to model his scowl on the great man’s (as it was captured, one assumes, in Yousuf Karsh’s photograph of 1941). Ian Smith, the former Spitfire pilot who issued Rhodesia’s unilateral declaration of independence on 11 November 1965, said that Churchill would have felt at home in his country, where power was monopolised by the white minority. Geri Halliwell claimed Churchill as the ‘original Spice Girl’. Admiration is not confined to the Right. In a 2002 television programme, the Labour politician Mo Mowlam advanced Churchill’s claim to have been the greatest ever Briton.

Those who admired Churchill in his lifetime, and who sometimes consciously created a myth around him, feared that he might be judged badly by history. Jock Colville, his former private secretary, said in 1968 that he anticipated ‘debunking’. The MP and writer Harold Nicolson once ungallantly told his wife that he admired her more than anyone ‘except Winston’, but, as early as February 1942, he wrote in his diary, ‘I fear a slump in public opinion which will deprive Winston of his legend.’ As it has turned out, Churchill has not been deprived of his legend. Opinion polls suggest that the British people are more favourable to him now than they were during the war – particularly towards its end. Qualities that would destroy the career of any modern-day public figure are either ignored or treated as amusing idiosyncrasies. Those who rage about Dominic Cummings should remember that, as most people were getting by on dried eggs and Woolton pie, the grouse season was opened early so that Churchill’s entourage would have enough to eat on a transatlantic voyage.

Steven Fielding, Bill Schwarz and Richard Toye are mainly concerned with what the Churchill myth says about us now rather than him then. Their focus is on how Churchill has been thought of since his death in 1965 – though Fielding points out that, in some respects, Churchill might as well have died in 1945, when he ceased to be war leader, or perhaps in 1941, when Britain ceased to have the starring role in the war against Hitler. They also highlight the fact, first pointed out by the historian John Charmley, that Britain’s decline was matched by a growing ‘need’ for Churchill.

Although the authors range across several decades, their focus is on the recent past. They are particularly concerned with the way in which Churchill’s myth was mobilised during the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. While both sides appealed to this myth, the leavers did so to best effect. The authors spend much time on Boris Johnson’s admiration for Churchill, as well as on the recent biography of Churchill by the well-connected conservative historian Andrew Roberts. There is a certain irony in all of this. Although Fielding et al present themselves as commentators on the Churchill myth, they also benefit from it, since putting the word ‘Churchill’ in any title is a good way to sell books (or at least to sell them to publishers). Toye has now, by my count, produced six books on aspects of Churchill’s career.

Like many works that touch on Churchill, this book takes on some of his characteristics: a jaunty prose style, a capacity for confident generalisation and a whiff of bullshit. It is, at times, long-winded and self-indulgent. I did not learn anything from their discussion of the film Darkest Hour that I did not know already, which, given that I have not seen it, is remarkable (I am probably one of many who suspect from the briefest of summaries that they would be sickened by its saccharine fraudulence). As for Johnson’s 2014 biography of Churchill, surely it is sufficient to recall Arthur Balfour’s verdict on one of Churchill own works: ‘Winston has written a big book about himself and called it The World Crisis.’

The authors argue that Churchill’s image is rooted in his association with the decision to fight on in 1940. One of them suggests that the ‘line dividing’ the myth of Churchill and that of May 1940 is ‘continually blurred’. Why, though, is 1940 itself so important? In some respects, there was a lull, almost an armed truce, for a few months after the Dunkirk evacuation. For most of the second half of 1940, the burden of the British war effort was shouldered by a few thousand fighter pilots. Later, it was sometimes suggested that Britain had fought on ‘alone’ in 1940. Churchill himself seemed to flirt with this interpretation when, after the war, he asked Clement Attlee for permission to quote official documents in his war memoirs:

I think [the documents] could win sympathy for our country, particularly in the United States, and make them understand the awful character of the trials through which we passed, especially when we were fighting alone, and the moral debt owed to us by other countries.

Of course, Britain was not alone in 1940. The white dominions were important allies; India and the African colonies were given no choice about fighting. Charles de Gaulle was in London and delivered his ‘Call to Honour’ on the same day as Churchill gave his ‘Finest Hour’ speech. But it’s true that the war became broader after 1940. This was the result of the entry of the USSR and the USA – as well as an expansion of the war effort within Britain. Industrial mobilisation changed the character of the country and made the working classes (and their representatives in the Cabinet) more important.

Most of all, though, Britain did more fighting after 1940. War no longer meant a small number of heroes performing in the skies over the Home Counties. Rather, it meant a slow, bloody, laborious grind in North Africa, Italy, Burma and, eventually, northern Europe. Soldiers were often fighting in large international coalitions, of which Britain itself was not the most important member. Churchill, who could be cavalier about casualties, did not always endear himself to the forces. When Colville talked of naval losses, Churchill replied, ‘What do you think we build the ships for?’ Not surprisingly, servicemen were sometimes immune to Churchill’s appeal. The late Sir Michael Howard recalled how his fellow Guards officers were disconcerted to find that the majority of men under their command planned to vote Labour. Howard Brenton’s The Churchill Play, written in 1974 (the centenary of Churchill’s birth), was rooted in the left-wing culture of the late 1960s but, almost in spite of itself, captured an aspect of the wartime mood. It contains a memorable exchange:

Private: But ’e won the war. ’E did that, ’e won a war.
Marine: People won the war. He just got pissed with Stalin.

In its immediate aftermath, the war was still recalled with reference to fighting. However, the purely military memories of the war have faded. Old soldiers are mostly dead. In British war films, Bletchley Park and Chequers now feature more than Arnhem or Tobruk. The war is now remembered as having been a more benign and inclusive experience. Watching the recent V-E Day anniversary celebrations, one could have been forgiven for thinking that Dame Vera Lynn sang the Wehrmacht to death. Sometimes the ‘people’s war’ version of events is seen as a creation of the Left: the Channel 4 series of that name broadcast in the mid-1980s must have been designed as a riposte to Thatcher’s ‘Churchillian’ behaviour during the Falklands War. But, as it turns out, a certain aspect of the Churchill myth fits well with the notion of a people’s war. As the war has come to be seen as a great family soap opera, Churchill has been transformed into an irascible but lovable great-uncle.

Last month, the Churchill statue in Parliament Square was boarded up to protect it from anti-racist demonstrators (I was intrigued to see that the nearby statue of Churchill’s South African friend and ally Jan Smuts apparently requires no protection). There is something strange about the agitation around this issue because even Churchill’s admirers (notably Andrew Roberts) have long conceded that he was a racist, even by the standards of the times in which he lived. There has, in truth, never really been much of a secret about Churchill’s faults and there is, therefore, something artificial about the piety with which his reputation is defended as well as the ferocity with which it is attacked. It all reminds me of a book by the French classicist Paul Veyne: Did the Greeks Believe in Their Myths?

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