A very Churchillian gesture

The wartime leader stashed piles of papers away. But were they his? Paul Vallely investigates
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The Independent Online
So who owns history? And what is it worth? The wrangle over the wartime papers of Sir Winston Churchill is one of those peculiarly British spats. Surely letters to a prime minister from generals, civil servants and members of the intelligence community sending reports about Nazi Germany are clearly documents of state. And surely, therefore, they are already the property of the nation. So why is £13m of National Lottery money being spent to buy them back?

Ah, but that is not, as tradition has it, how things work in this country. Papers accumulated by prime ministers during their terms of office have always become the property of the individuals in retirement. The muniments rooms of 18th- and 19th-century houses are full of such documents. At Hatfield House there is even a collection belonging to Robert Cecil, the first Earl of Salisbury and chief minister to Good Queen Bess and James I. There such assemblages gradually became part of the English country heritage and were freely available to scholars.

"It's only fairly recently that people have been cashing in on it," says Andrew Roberts, the historian and author of Eminent Churchillians who is now working on a biography of the later Salisbury. But if his nostrils wrinkle faintly with affected patrician disdain, he does not allow it to temper his uncompromising sense of who should decide such questions as the rightful disposal of papers such as these. "The free market," he pronounces briskly, "except in cases like this where the national interest cuts in."

Having said that, he opines, it is quite right that the present Winston Churchill MP and his family should so profit from the lottery. "There's a lot of political correctness talked about this. Just because a speech was written on Downing Street notepaper doesn't mean it's the property of the state. That way absurdity lies. They are the man's own words and his descendants have the right to them. It's not greed - the present Winston Churchill's got Lloyd's losses and a divorce to manage."

Whether it was to advantage his descendants, or simply out of a sense of history, there is no doubt that Churchill PM did everything he could to ensure that his collection was as comprehensive as possible. "If you left your school cap around it ended up in his private box," his nephew Peregrine Churchill once told me, recounting how the great man's secretaries were constantly searching for important documents only to find that the PM had already filched them and stuck them in his private hoard.

Surprisingly, perhaps, most historians seem unconcerned. "There's long been a tradition that prime ministers were allowed to take away with them papers relating to their time in office," agrees Ben Pimlott, biographer of Harold Wilson. "I've made some use of the Churchill papers in my researches; an awful lot of them are very routine, mundane letters and carbon copies of letters of an extremely basic kind."

That in itself is interesting historically. "You can't understand Second World War administration without realising that a lot of it was done in an extraordinarily boring, bureaucratic way and not in grand flourishes," Pimlott says. But people are now confusing the content of Churchill's life and his words and speeches with the disembodied physical objects which carry them. The letters, he says, are no more a national treasure than would be the great man's stamp collection. "They're of antiquarian interest, of fetishistic interest, but they're not like a painting where the original is something which cannot ever be adequately reproduced. I'm not sure that the handwriting of a historic figure should be regarded as a precious work of art. Anyway, many of these papers are carbon copies."

There is not universal agreement for such a proposition. Lady Antonia Fraser, the historical biographer, insists that originals can be uniquely revealing. "With certain documents you get a sense that these are real breathing people - you notice things from extraordinary differences in handwriting which no printed version could ever tell you," she says. "Mary Queen of Scots' handwriting changed tremendously according to the tribulations she went through and you couldn't possibly get a sense of that from a transcript."

But many support Pimlott's stance. "There's an enormous mystique and pseudo-reverence for original papers," says Roy Porter, the medical historian. "So long as good exact and complete photographic copies of papers are kept, I don't object strongly if originals leave the country. As an historian I'm interested in what papers contain rather than in the sacred reverence which attaches to them just because they were written by a famous person. All this present talk is reminiscent of the medieval cult of saints' bones and relics."

Church history, as it happens, has an early precedent to offer on the subject of distinguishing the book from its contents. It was the Ulster princely cleric Columba who, around the year 560, had a copy made from a gospel he had borrowed from an Irish king. The king objected and obtained one of Europe's first copyright rulings with the judgment of an ecclesiastical court that "as the calf belongs to the cow, so the copy belongs to its book". Some 3,000 people died in the religious war which ensued and Columba went off in penance to found Iona abbey.

Such disputes, thankfully, have not characterised more recent clerical history. "Archbishops of Canterbury don't take away their correspondence. It's all lodged at Lambeth Palace," says the church historian David Edwards, "not that anyone much wants to look at it."

Access, whether or not people take advantage of it, is the key to the issue for most academics. Contrary to received opinion access is, many claim, increased rather than reduced if papers leave Britain for one of the vast repositories of some university in the Midwest of the United States. "The Americans look after things rather well," says Jeremy Lewis, the biographer of Cyril Connolly, whose papers were lodged by the writer's widow at the University of Tulsa. "It's all well catalogued and physically well kept in air-conditioned rooms. Compare that with most impoverished English university libraries, where they can't afford the staff to finish cataloguing and they don't really know what they've got."

It is easy to sneer. Americans are big on possessions; they have more money and less heritage, so buying papers is a way of purchasing prestige. But then imperial powers are like that. We did it ourselves only a century ago, when Britain was powerful enough to buy or steal anything we needed to complete the masterful cultural compendiums which are still a magnet for tourists.

Nor was the concept of pillage alien to the Churchills. The first duke of Marlborough, hero of the 18th-century wars against Louis XIV of France, exploited his position as a general in the manner of a modern property speculator, making large profits from the feeding and equipping of tens of thousands of men and horses. Despite his great victories at Blenheim and Ramillies he was eventually dismissed from all his appointments after charges of misuse of public funds were made in the House of Commons.

"The Churchills are a family of adventurers, as Winston Churchill has demonstrated by managing to get 13 million quid for a load of old carbon paper," observes Ben Pimlott wryly. Or as Gladstone put it: "There never was a Churchill, from John of Marlborough down, who was not a cad." And so the wheel of history continues to turn.