Churchill the hero

Greatest statesman of the 20th century or the last of an arrogant ruling elite? Forty years after he was laid to rest, the controversy over Winston Churchill's power and personality shows no sign of abating
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Indy Politics

The funeral of Sir Winston Churchill 40 years ago was the last great ceremony of state to honour a commoner that any of us can have seen or, most likely, ever will see. All the panoply of pageantry that Britain can deploy was there. Yet it finished with a homely chuffer pulling out of Paddington on its way to the last resting place in a slightly bleak churchyard in Oxfordshire. Churchill could have been buried with fanfares in Westminster Abbey if he had wanted, just as he could have had a dukedom. But he preferred to remain the great commoner, just as he preferred to lie in the earth of a countryside known to him since his childhood. Enough was enough.

The funeral of Sir Winston Churchill 40 years ago was the last great ceremony of state to honour a commoner that any of us can have seen or, most likely, ever will see. All the panoply of pageantry that Britain can deploy was there. Yet it finished with a homely chuffer pulling out of Paddington on its way to the last resting place in a slightly bleak churchyard in Oxfordshire. Churchill could have been buried with fanfares in Westminster Abbey if he had wanted, just as he could have had a dukedom. But he preferred to remain the great commoner, just as he preferred to lie in the earth of a countryside known to him since his childhood. Enough was enough.

At the climaxes of his life he had always understood how to capture a mood, and posthumously he did it again. It was not as if he had been snatched away in the fullness of his powers, but on the contrary had suffered some years of visible decrepitude, if not senility. So there was no need for any public outpouring of shocked grief.

Instead the British set about a business we do well, a ceremonial calculated to play on basic human feelings and produce a demonstration of loyalty to the order of things we live in. All agreed the funeral went off superbly: just right in every detail. And even things which went a tiny bit awry - the burly guardsmen staggering under the weight of the coffin, Lord Attlee breaking down in tears - served to underline the proud discipline of the rest.

Probably we did it so well because we sensed we were doing it for the last time. Since this was the final performance of the run, we might as well make it a good one. The restraint was not only possible but preferable because we had already moved on into a new era.

For long into Churchill's career Britain had remained what he wanted her to be, an imperial power. She held on to her status despite the ever stricter constraints, for which he had little patience, of her loss of economic leadership. She still won two world wars. So he, up till his retirement in 1955, continued as if nothing much had changed from his salad days in Sudan or South Africa. He still spoke to American and Russian leaders as if he was their equal and they, apparently, could say nothing to disillusion him.

Yet by the time of his death in 1965 the British people at large were losing, or had already lost, their illusions. Empire was more or less gone. A new role had not been found in Europe or anywhere else. And the parlous state of the economy could no longer be overlooked. The Labour prime minister elected the year before, Harold Wilson, was straining every nerve and squandering his energies to cure a deficit on the balance of payments which, it later emerged, did not exist. Such was the futility of the period Britain entered as she buried Churchill.

That the British people looked on Churchill with an affectionate but somewhat self-conscious nostalgia is no surprise, then. He embodied the best and something of the worst of an era in which they and their country had been at their greatest yet had fallen from that greatness. The whole gamut of national experience could be found in him.

Churchill was a scion of the high aristocracy who took to a role as tribune of the people, becoming a radical by the time he got into the cabinet in 1910 with his championship of benefits for pensioners and unemployed. Yet he would have no truck with socialism. He supported intervention by the Western allies to overthrow the infant Soviet Union. Britain's own General Strike in 1926 found no fiercer foe than him, and this bedevilled his relations with the unions for the rest of his career. All the same he did nothing to dismantle the nationalised industries or the welfare state, planned during his first premiership, when he returned to office for his second.

If his domestic efforts were marred by misjudgments, he seemed sounder on defence and foreign affairs, though not without aberrations there either. His expansion of the navy in the First World War made sure German submarines could not starve us out. His warnings of the Nazi menace proved him right where the British government was wrong in its policy of appeasement. Once he got to power amid military catastrophe in Europe, he galvanised a war economy which stayed the course and indeed proved superior to that of the Third Reich. In a series of international conferences, at Casablanca, Quebec, Cairo, Teheran and Yalta, he did much to shape the post-war world. In all this he kept the people on his side with the most sublime oratory of the 20th century.

The politics had swung as violently from side to side as the career went up and down. First elected as a Tory MP, Churchill soon joined the Liberals. Sacked from the Admiralty for the failed expedition to the Dardanelles in the First World War, but back in government to negotiate the independence of Ireland in 1922, he then went walkabout. He led his own Constitutional party, of uncertain principles, before returning to the Tories as a Chancellor of the Exchequer reactionary enough to restore the gold standard, with disastrous results. In the 1930s he seemed finished, probably drinking himself to death. Yet he had within him moral resources to make a comeback and meet the demands of a life-and-death struggle to defeat Adolf Hitler.

It would be easy to pillory Churchill's errors and inconsistencies, his lapses of judgement and his tendency to get things out of proportion. A man so erratic at least had for every vice some opposing virtue. But perhaps the contradictions can be reconciled on a higher plane. Churchill was a big man who rose above petty differences of party and even principle in the conventional politics of lesser men. Like any politician he did some good things and some bad things, yet he had one supreme achievement which can never be taken away from him, the salvation of his country in 1940. Now we have a different type of country, such as he never knew and probably would not have liked. But it is only there because of him.

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