Churchill the villain

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In Algiers in 1943, Churchill told Harold Macmillan that he was not sure that history would judge him to have been a great man. When Macmillan expressed surprise at this, Churchill replied that to future generations he might look like Cromwell, who, obsessed with Britain's old enemy, Spain, had missed the rise of the new threat from France. It was a typically Churchillian piece of reasoning, and, of course, he went on to try to prove himself wrong by warning of the danger from the USSR in his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946.

In Algiers in 1943, Churchill told Harold Macmillan that he was not sure that history would judge him to have been a great man. When Macmillan expressed surprise at this, Churchill replied that to future generations he might look like Cromwell, who, obsessed with Britain's old enemy, Spain, had missed the rise of the new threat from France. It was a typically Churchillian piece of reasoning, and, of course, he went on to try to prove himself wrong by warning of the danger from the USSR in his famous "Iron Curtain" speech at Fulton, Missouri, in March 1946.

He need not have worried. Whatever a "great man" might be, Churchill qualifies on all counts, and it would be futile to challenge his claims to the status he so desired. But great men can commit great mistakes, and Churchill's are on the same gargantuan scale as his achievements.

One of the curious features of the secular canonisation of Winston Churchill, stemming, perhaps, from the needs of his American admirers, is the way in which the cult has created a Churchill shorn of the characteristics that made him such a controversial figure for most of his career. It has created a Churchill akin to the waxwork Lenin in Red Square.

The causes to which Churchill devoted his career were typical of imperialists of his age and background. The "wilderness years" of the 1930s were not some strange aberration when political pygmies kept a great man from office, they were the inevitable result of Churchill's crusted Toryism. As early as the 1920s he was writing about the "failed 20th century", and by the 1930s he was musing aloud about the failure of the democratic experiment. When Lord Robert Cecil wrote that he thought Churchill took no interest in politics unless it involved the chance of a little bloodshed - preferably communists, but home-grown trades unionists would do - he was expressing a common view.

The aristocratic Churchill lamented the passing of the rule of his class and the growing influence of the lower orders; he was happy to pass measures helping them, but resented their demanding their "rights". His attitude towards the Indians was the same - with the addition of the racialism of his age and background. A man who distrusted democracy and wished to deny measures of self-government to India was not in tune with the spirit of the modern age. Indeed, even his opposition to appeasement, which was more sporadic than he later made out, was based on a visceral distrust of the Germans, not any understanding of the nature and threat of fascism. As his attitude to Mussolini (until 1940) showed, Churchill was rather in favour of authoritarian rule from the right.

If this is read as critical of Churchill, it merely demonstrates the extent to which the "Churchill-lite" version of him has taken hold. It would be easy to enter into a point-scoring contest with his admirers: on the debit side would be things like the Dardanelles in 1915 (for which he was responsible); his attitude towards the workers during the General Strike; his opposition to the India Bill; his support for Edward VIII; his sponsorship of the Mediterranean campaign during the war; his appeasement of the unions after 1951. But against these would be set his achievement in 1940. Churchill's leadership then was what has cemented him in the public mind. A detailed examination of what he actually did between 1941 and 1945 leaves plenty of room for the critic; his peacetime premiership leaves even more. But at the heart of any real critique lies a paradox.

The causes for which Churchill fought were not fostered by what he did. He fought for the Empire, but the efforts of 1941-45 hastened its downfall; he fought for Europe to be free; but after 1945 half of it was less free than in 1939; he fought for the balance of power - and left Europe in the shadow of the Communism he detested; and he fought to retain British independence - but made his country an American satellite. His admirers subscribe to the fantasy adumbrated by Macmillan that the British stood in relation to the Americans as the Greeks did to the Romans of old; that is just a comforter. The tendency towards playing the role of America's poodle began under Churchill, and Blair's Iraq policy is in line with it, and Churchill's other "lesson" about taking pre-emptive strikes. His admirers will quote "jaw jaw" being better than "war war", but Churchill's practice suggested he was not as good as his word.

There were two men in Europe in 1940 talking about empires lasting a thousand years; fortunately for the world, neither of them got their way. When Churchill said "If the British Empire should last a thousand years", his own actions were speeding up the processes that would dissolve it. The same was true of his desire to preserve the social system out of which his own class had done so well; the war proved a dynamic force for social changes that Churchill hated.

If these are examples where we have cause to rejoice in Churchill's failures, there are others where lamentation is called for. He fought to restore the balance of power in Europe, but ended by appeasing Stalin, a man whom we could "trust", he said in 1945, and handing eastern Europe over to his tender mercies. Nor did he maintain Britain's independence in international affairs.

De Gaulle, who suffered from it during the war, realised that the British would always choose America over Europe, which was why he said "non" to Britain's proposed entry into the Common Market. He saw that Churchill's policy preferences had led his successors to think Britain could have a future as a great power outside "Europe". De Gaulle, as proud a patriot as Churchill, but a greater man, knew this to be a folly. Forty years after his death, Britain has still not recovered from this aspect of the great man's legacy.

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