We’ll never see the like of Churchill again. Is that so bad?

No politician today would actually want to advance any Churchillian views

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The Independent Online

In February 1945, at the Fayum oasis in Egypt, Winston Churchill met the founder of the Saudi kingdom, Ibn Saud. The Prime Minister had been warned that the monarch – the father of King Abdullah, who died yesterday – would not tolerate smoking or drinking in his presence.

Churchill’s reply? He said to the interpreter: “If it was the religion of His Majesty to deprive himself of smoking and alcohol, I must point out that my rule of life prescribed as an absolutely sacred rite smoking cigars and also the drinking of alcohol before, after and, if need be, during all meals and in the intervals between them. The King graciously accepted the position.” Ask whether any premier today would take that tone towards the new King Salman (also a son of Ibn Saud), and you can measure the level of bluster, fantasy and hypocrisy that fuels the phony British cult of Churchill.

We sentimentalise rough diamonds but, in normal times, we vote for smooth operators. Only total war opened the gate to Churchill’s undomesticated roar. Half a century after his death, no serious political player wants him or his like back, despite the commemorative jamboree that ends next Friday in a re-enactment of his coffin’s funeral voyage along the Thames on 30 January 1965.

If, for David Cameron, “his words and his actions reverberate through our national life”, to Jeremy Paxman this “man of his time” would be “suffocated by the spinning and posturing that pass for politics today”. To be sure, no one to the left of – well, a Saudi ruler – would now advance many Churchillian opinions. They ranged from warm support for the eugenic extermination of “the feeble-minded and insane classes” to detestation of Indians, “a beastly people” whose aspirations for freedom he consistently blocked.

Rather, the Churchillian style appeals, in speech and action alike. This week, Boris Johnson, who so shamelessly lets his inner Winnie show, travelled to Iraq to swashbuckle with British forces for electoral advantage. In The Churchill Factor, the Mayor of London last year eulogised his hero in a frothy panegyric. Johnson knows that his idol would scamper to the nearest battlefield for a telegram opportunity, a habit that began with his stunts alongside the 21st Lancers at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. Invoke Churchill in the Boris vein and you implicitly lay claim to a stout heart, a wicked wit, a free spirit and a giant charisma. Outrageous, fearless, funny, large-hearted, silver-tongued, the Churchillian ideal of the maverick pathfinder has always bred epigones. Yet much of the present idolatry is sheer bluff.

In places where outspoken mischief really flourishes, a Churchill-like taste for devilry endures. Don’t, however, seek it among the self-adoring politicians and pundits who like to claim his legacy. In this anniversary season, someone else deserves the bulldog-spirit award. And she’s German. The Femen activist Mercedes Reichstein this month protested against the xenophobic Pegida movement that has spread across Germany from its headquarters in Dresden. She daubed a message in large letters across her naked chest and tweeted the result. It read: “Bomber Harris, do it again.” There must be something to offend almost everyone in that. How purely Churchillian.

In fact, the death of 25,000 civilians in a firestorm unleashed by Allied air raids was one scene of carnage that troubled the wartime PM. In March 1945, he wrote in a memo that “the destruction of Dresden remains a serious query against the conduct of Allied bombing”. We have no such expressions of remorse about, for instance, the Bengal famine of 1942-43. Then, up to three million people died in large part because Churchill – deaf to the humanitarian pleas of the India secretary Leo Amery, and the Viceroy, Lord Linlithgow – refused to divert plentiful Allied shipping to alleviate mass starvation. Earlier in a political career that until 1940 merits the subtitle chosen by his biographer Robert Rhodes James – “a study in failure” – the reckless, blundering First Lord of the Admiralty had in 1915 barged into disaster at Gallipoli. Churchill’s rash folly cost the lives of about 57,000 Allied soldiers and sailors.

Paxman is correct. No aspiring politician with Churchillian views, foibles and baggage would last long in politics today. In November 1894, for instance, a crowd of hooligan toffs smashed down a screen at the Empire, Leicester Square. The Social Purity League had made the London County Council erect it in order to separate prostitutes from their posh clients. “Ladies of the Empire, I stand for liberty,” proclaimed the vandals’ ringleader. In an appalled letter to The Times, the Bishop of London lamented that he should ever see a scion of the Dukes of Marlborough hailed by “a flourish of strumpets”. Yes, Churchill – for it was he – was then no more than a tearaway Sandhurst cadet. The point is that he boasted at length of the Empire riot in the memoir My Early Life, published in 1930 after he had served as Chancellor, Home Secretary and Minister for War: “In these somewhat unvirginal surroundings, I made my maiden speech.” If any of our blokeish vote-hunters wish to trumpet their past acts of criminal damage in defence of ladies of the night, please do so now.

That Marlborough ancestry – refreshed by the Manhattan millions of his mother, Jennie Jerome – gave Churchill leeway and latitude. An aristocratic confidence loosened his tongue. No politician today (even among the Old Etonians) inherits that degree of impunity. Bourgeois respectability rules. When the aged Liberal statesman Lord Palmerston fathered yet another illegitimate child, Benjamin Disraeli refused to spread the story during an election. He feared that, were it widely known, Palmerston “would sweep the country”.

Since then, the threshold for job-sabotaging scandal has dropped in each generation. In recent times, verbal “gaffes”, defined ever more strictly, made blunt parliamentarians look high risk or accident prone. Now, with Emily Thornberry’s “disgrace” after her white-van tweet, British political culture has plunged to a new nadir of paranoiac prissiness. The mere suspicion of irony may curtail a career.

According to one familiar script, I should now utter the usual curse on “political correctness gone mad”. However, far deeper forces are in play. In any fluid society, with meritocracy comes anxiety – anxiety about doing the right thing, striking the right tone, finding the right words. Open up once-closed hierarchies to ambitious newcomers, then place those parvenus under the scrutiny of an unforgiving media, and they will sweat and toil to soothe, to please and to avoid offence. Although other newly enfranchised groups have since joined him, Richard Hoggart’s discussion of “the scholarship boy” in his 1957 classic The Uses of Literacy remains a pioneer diagnosis. “Uprooted and anxious”, Hoggart’s worried striver labours to conform, to pacify, to please. Self-conscious, insecure, new boys and girls live in terror of the social, the linguistic or – in politics – the ideological gaffe. No wonder this dread crimps their speech and cramps their style.

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Winston Churchill leaving London for his country home, Chartwell in Kent in 1964

 

Every politician now orbits within a tight system of spin. Beyond City Hall, the leader of Ukip most effectively conveys the impression of an office-seeker who tells raw Churchillian truth. That image stems from strategy as much as spontaneity. Besides, Douglas Carswell – Ukip’s first elected MP – takes care to redefine “political correctness” as simple politeness. Even in this rough-hewn party, Carswell may speak for the polished future, Farage for the unvarnished past.

The liberal-left in politics hosts more of these anxious aspirants. For all his upbringing within a sort of academic elite, Ed Miliband – at any rate, in his nervous and defensive moods – can sound like a prisoner of the scholarship-boy syndrome. The simultaneous need to satisfy the attitude police in their own ranks, mollify the mainstream and disarm the enemy means that left-of-centre public figures appear peculiarly pinched and dry. Robust, salt-of-the-earth plain speaking, Dennis Skinner-style, may carry the taint of machismo. Both genders, though, have to act – as the Scots say – douce. Within the Labour Party, it is hard to imagine a successor to the much-missed Mo Mowlam – backstage broker of the Good Friday Agreement, agony aunt for a lads’ mag, and a rare politician who opted for comparative frankness about her past: “Unlike President Clinton, I did inhale.”

Conservatives guard their own taboos that blinker the gaze and button the lip. Patriotic correctness dictates that no senior Tory will voice a word of criticism about Britain’s lacklustre military leadership, despite the deadly failures in Basra and Helmand. Churchill, in contrast, had according to legend a more bracing view of the “traditions” of the Royal Navy: “rum, sodomy and the lash”. Pedants will point out that he never actually said that. No, but when the words were attributed to him, Churchill crisply replied: “I wish I had.”

Modern democracy makes our style of politics strait-laced and its language mealy-mouthed. With class conflict in abeyance, and nice bourgeois manners mandatory, politicians tiptoe politely across a patch of centre ground. Gentility and decorum reign. More sacred bull than role model, Churchill will rest in peace – because most of us like it that way. All the same, I would lift a glass – preferably charged with his beloved Pol Roger – to the shocking Mercedes Reichstein.

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