Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now

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The Independent Online

Ferdinand Mount’s 1978 novel The Clique, about journalism in the Sixties, opens with its hero, Gunby Goater, being sent to cover the final illness, 50 years ago last week, of “the Last Great Englishman”. Later, watching from the Embankment as the barge carrying the behemoth’s coffin moves up the river towards Westminster, Goater reflects that this is a “factitious” event – “All over England, middle-aged men were dressing up”. Later in the novel, he wanders through down-at-heel East End terraces, where every house name – Tel-el-Kebir, Balmoral, Inkerman Villa – stokes some glowing imperial memory. No prizes for guessing the identity of the Last Great Englishman, or reckoning up the symbolism of Goater’s journey around the backstreets: “It was the end of an era, all right.”

So many rapt defences of the Churchill case have been produced in the half century since his death – more than 400 books at the last count – that it can come as rather a shock to examine some of the testimonies put forward by the prosecuting counsel. Here, for example, is the Edwardian man of letters A C Benson, coming across him at the Athenaeum in the summer of 1915: “I had not realised what a horrid little fellow he was – like some sort of maggot. His head is big, he stoops. He has thin nervous limp sort of hands. He looks like a drug-taker, or at least as if there was something wrong to be ashamed of… I happened to be next to him also in the lavatory and hated the way he washed. He seemed self-conscious even there and on edge  – indeed, as if he were on fire within.”

To Benson, a gentlemanly pacifist from a bygone age, Churchill was merely a warmonger (the same sense of a man spoiling for a fight emerges from Margot Asquith’s diaries from August 1914). To George Orwell, nearly three decades later, he was simply a political opponent who required support in the absence of any credible left-wing alternative. (“I’ve no wish to praise him/I’d gladly shoot him when the war is won,” he melodramatically wrote while trading some Byronic stanzas with Alex Comfort in Tribune.) Evelyn Waugh, summing up his achievements in 1965, declared that he was “always in the wrong, surrounded by crooks, a terrible father, a radio personality”.


That none of these accusations, verifiable though they may be, matter in the least is a tribute to the teleological gloss that attached itself to Churchill’s personality from the  mid-1940s onward, and the way in which every aspect of his previous history could be refashioned as a part of the Churchillian legend once the Second World War had been won and his place in our national history secured. Had he died in 1939, it seems fairly certain that posterity would have remembered him only for his failures – the catastrophic Dardanelles campaign of 1915, his sabre-rattling during the General Strike of 1926, the long years of exile in the 1930s, when he was regarded as a maverick figure whose day was done. Six years later, for all Orwell’s complaints about “Winston Churchill posing as a democrat”, he was reinvented as the champion of freedom.

But paradoxes of this kind are a feature of Churchill’s career. Even that “Last Great Englishman” tag is a misnomer of a sort, for he was half-American, on his mother’s side, and the almost uncanny sense he sometimes gave off of embodying a certain kind of English cultural heritage – see the well-nigh Shakespearian language of the war-time broadcasts – was balanced by a very un-English swagger. He was one of “us” (a duke’s grandson, brought up in the great palace at Blenheim, whose father had been Chancellor of the Exchequer) and also, mysteriously, capable of bold strokes and evasions of which “we” were rarely capable, a pattern insider-outsider, able to draw on his establishment connections when they came in useful and ostentatiously discard them when they did not. A man, more to the point, whose early progress, when seen in the round, is a kind of object lesson in defying your limitations.

In the paralysing light of the 21st century, it tends to be forgotten quite how dim Churchill’s prospects seemed at the end of the 19th. He narrowly evaded being kicked out of Harrow in his early teens and was only rescued by his father’s celebrity. A 5ft 6in army cadet with a 31-inch chest, who had almost died of pneumonia as a schoolboy, he spent three days in a coma in 1893 after falling off a bridge. Like one of the less admirable characters in Anthony Powell’s novels, his life seems at a very early stage to have resolved itself into a struggle to impose his will on the circumstances around him; a struggle in which impetuosity, obstinacy, shrewdness and an entirely romantic view of history, and the part that Britain might play in it, all had a role. It was no wonder that the Bensons of this world took fright.

As a politician, too, Churchill had increasingly come to be seen as an anachronism in the age of Stanley Baldwin (one of whose slogans was “safety first”), Ramsay MacDonald and Neville Chamberlain. But if his eventual rise to power, and military success, was a triumph of the will, then it also demonstrated one of the great truths of British political life, which is the electorate’s more than occasional preference for style over substance, the heroic amateur over the efficient professional, the Cavalier over the Roundhead, the public figure who is not frightened to say what he, or she, thinks and whose lack of scruple is seen as a mark in his, or her, favour.

When, for example, in the aftermath of Dunkirk, Churchill delivered his famous “We shall fight them on the beaches, we shall fight them in the streets…” speech, a rumour instantly circulated in London to the effect that he had added the words “We’ll throw bottles at the buggers – it’s about all we’ve got left”, but that this qualification had been struck out by the BBC censor. The story has since proved to be apocryphal but, as Orwell – in no doubt of Churchill’s qualities of leadership, while looking forward to a Labour government – pointed out, it was the kind of thing that people thought him capable of; another feather added to the plumage of the Churchill myth at about the same level of that other apocryphal war-era story of the boxes of condoms sent to Russia which the Prime Minister had insisted should be stamped with the slogan “Extra small”.

Naturally, when placed beneath the lens of history, much of the Churchill myth soon falls apart.  Even that much-vaunted “national unity” he is supposed to have inspired is called into question by a working- class novel such as Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). Its hero, Arthur Seaton, remembers his disaffected parents taking no interest in the war effort, and the family listening to Churchill’s speeches “as if it mattered”.

As for policy, had a Conservative government under his leadership managed to get itself elected in 1945, it would almost certainly have had to introduce a version of the National Health Service and give India its freedom. The Churchill of the 1950s, returned to Downing Street, was in some ways quite as much a trimmer as his predecessors. But the contradiction of his achievement remains.

If the 1940s, as historians insist, saw the birth of a new kind of Britain, then its only guarantor was a representative of a very old, if not archaic, kind. Not the least irony of his legacy to us is that the freedoms which the average modern liberal takes for granted should come courtesy of a man whose attitude to the political process is enough to make the average modern liberal feel thoroughly ill at ease, and that the severest of his detractors should end up thanking providence that a man called Churchill lived.