Churchill: When Britain Said No, review: the politician emerges as an exaggerated cross between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson

Some possible reasons why Churchill won the war, but lost the peace

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The Independent Culture

When I was at school and we learned about the Second World War (before I did my GCSE options and chose to drop it in favour of subjects with as little real world relevance as possible), I remember being taught that Winston Churchill was the strongest leader Britain had ever known, one who led the nation to victory against all the odds. We did the speech about beaches and that “finest hour” one. His accent was far removed from what I heard every day: the words were precisely chosen, yet his voice was slurred, bombastic and booming.

This BBC Two documentary, which focused on the period after VE Day, when Churchill ran for a second term as prime minister and lost rather spectacularly to Labour’s Clement Attlee, revealed a lot that we didn’t study at school.

Historical analysis came from the likes of Antony Beevor, Max Hastings and Juliet Gardiner, interspersed with first-hand accounts and actors (filmed in black and white, so we know it’s the past) who re-enacted scenes documented in journals from Churchill’s daughter, Mary, his wife, Clementine, his military adviser, Lord Alanbrooke, and Lord Moran, his chief physician. What they revealed about Churchill’s character demolishes the image of the military hero, and replaces it with a grouchy, stubborn, occasionally racist character, with a “magpie mind”, no vision for and no sympathy for the common man. Even his youngest daughter and wife criticised him.


One excerpt from his wife’s diaries describes how Churchill once travelled on the underground and had to be “rescued” because he got stuck on the Circle Line and kept going round. While everyone else had put matters of class and wealth aside, because they were forced to by the war effort, Churchill’s aristocratic elitism had been preserved by his privileged status, so after the war, he was ideologically more distant from the electorate than at the start.

I wasn’t the only one to hear those speeches and think “What’s he on about?”; members of the public who heard the “finest hour” speech suggested he had “dined out a little too well” before he gave it, saying he sounded old fashioned. 

Winston Churchill outside the German Reichstag during a tour of the ruined city of Berlin on 16 July 1945

The public fought hard during war time and wanted to look to the future; they felt they deserved a collective reward after enduring the privations of the previous six years, and this was offered by Attlee’s radical socialist plans to abolish the class system and to create a welfare state and the NHS. Churchill, on the other hand, was still looking back to the past. “Help Him Finish the Job” declared the Conservatives’ campaign banners, while Labour’s mantra was “Let Us Face the Future”.

One interesting thing that emerged from the documentary is how tame and homogeneous our party leaders look now. Churchill emerged from the documentary as an exaggerated cross between Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson; he believed white people were “a higher grade race”, he drank too much and loved the sound of his own voice and if someone contradicted him, he would just bluster on regardless until they gave in or stopped listening. Attlee, on the other hand, had a totally new vision; he was a socialist and not afraid to say it, offering voters a distinctly different choice.

If only I’d learnt about Churchill as a person, rather than a figurehead in my history lessons, maybe I’d have stuck around to do that GCSE.