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Winston Churchill: Legend or myth, why do we want him on the new fiver?

 The legacy of the British leader is the defining component in Britain’s self-image, offering inspiration and comfort

Sean O'Grady
Thursday 15 September 2016 15:07 BST
The new plastic note, featuring the former British Prime Minister is designed to be more durable
The new plastic note, featuring the former British Prime Minister is designed to be more durable (Getty)

And so the question arises: why do we want to put Winston Churchill on the fivers? I know, a churlish, almost childish attitude to the new design from the Bank of England, featuring that iconic image of him by the photographer Yousuf Karsh, from 1941. He’s been on coins, on stamps, and featured on plenty of tat over many years, had pubs and an insurance company named after him, been sat, in bust form, in the Oval Office, and generally edges just ahead of Shakespeare as the most ubiquitous dead Englishman around the globe.

Every politician since him has evoked his spirit, or at least tried to. As a symbol of nationhood he stands without equal, still growling his way around the History Channel and the heritage industry half a century after his funeral. The Churchill legend, maybe more so now, post-Brexit, than ever before, is the defining component in Britain’s self-image, offering inspiration and comfort. Is it legend, though, or is it myth?

The legend has started to be challenged, sure enough. Churchill’s inglorious, and unabashed, record as an arch-imperialist and a burst of revisionism has started to fashion a second, countervailing one to the conventional view of Churchill as unalloyed hero that has held sway since we won the Battle of Britain. There’s a lot in it, too.

Churchill committed a number of acts that might be termed “evil”, or war crimes. It is true that he sat in a Cabinet that sent in the irregular “black and tans” a notoriously cruel gang of British “troops” recruited from prisons to tame the Irish, ironically enough through terrorism, and when the British grip on the island had long since been lost.

It’s also true he authorised the bombing of Iraq by the RAF early in its period under British occupation, just after the first world war. He became a political outcast, even in his own party, when he campaigned against modest proposals for Indian self-rule in the 1930s, later declaring that “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire”.

It’s all a bit embarrassing now, to see that Churchill called Mahatma Gandhi a “fakir” (you wonder how he might pronounce that word). His contempt for the colonial peoples was enduring. Even though he was senescent by the time of his last premiership in the 1950s, again he headed a government determined to use whatever means were necessary to preserve British rule in Kenya, with atrocities by British troops only now being fully revealed, and apologised for.

As for being a war criminal, even his staunchest defenders find it difficult to justify the bombing of Dresden, where many thousands of civilians were incinerated when it was apparent that the war was won. The charge sheet doesn’t stop there, either.

The Gallipoli expedition, about which we heard so much during its centenary last year, was a catastrophic blunder rather than a deliberate act in that sense, but it too was a slaughter. Virtually a synonym for military failure, it cost 140,000 allied casualties including 44,000 fatalities. Only a few years before, the anti-socialist Churchill ordered the army in to confront striking Welsh miners at Tonypandy; accounts conflict about how many were shot under Churchill’s orders.

As in Ireland and India, in South Wales Churchill’s reputation is somewhat compromised by his ruthless enthusiasm for repression. He wasn’t even that keen on giving women the vote. More prosaically, and often overlooked among the bloody excitements that spatter the old man’s life, his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, a job he held for most of the 1920s, was also disastrous. On poor advice from Treasury officials (’twas ever thus), he returned Britain to the gold standard in 1925. Arcane, yes; but it had miserable consequences. It was meant to be a symbolic return to the old order.

The value of the pound sterling was again linked to a sold precious metal, just as it had been before the exigencies of the Great War forced the British to inflate their paper currency (not for the last time). It turned out to be one of the great economic follies of the century, making British exports too expensive, exacerbating unemployment (not least in this beleaguered south Wales valleys) and crippling British commerce generally. The only good thing to emerge from it, inadvertently, was that it enabled German exporters to take more trade, and the modest economic recovery in the Weimar Republic in the late 1920’s pushed the Nazis back in the polls, for a while.

Happy to rat and re-rat between political parties according to his own interest, he wasn’t even much of a democrat, for all the veneration he displayed towards Parliament, and vice versa. Mussolini, for example, he saw as the man who fixed Italy rather than a prototype Hitler, and democracy was really only something the British could be trusted with, or at least the Anglo-Saxons (he was after all half-American). He was usually deeply hostile to Soviet “Bolshevism”, but was flexible even there. Allied to Stalin in the war, he wryly observed that: “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons”.

He was also a romantic sort of monarchist. That’s hardly a crime, but it led him to support Edward VIII in the abdication crisis of 1936. When Churchill’s fortunes were already near their nadir, he even toyed with the idea of creating a “King’s Party” to keep the Hitler-sympathiser on the throne, with the suggestion that the will of Parliament could not be supreme over the sovereign’s wish to marry who he wished to.

Churchill was shouted down in the Commons. His eccentric stance confirmed the view of many of his contemporaries that here was a man far too maverick to be allowed anywhere near power. The dull politicians of that era – Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain – were more than hostile to the flamboyant, lucid, fluent and energetic radicals of the time – Churchill and Lloyd George. They did everything they could to keep the reckless pair out of government. Which they succeeded in, but not least because Churchill did do so much to make himself wildly unpopular with the British public.

The increasingly urgent warnings he was issuing about Hitler’s dangerous ambitions were too uncomfortable and too bellicose for a nation that was getting on with its tranquil suburban life. At that time disabled veterans of the Great War were an obvious sight on the streets, and virtually every family in the land was still grieving for some son, brother or husband lost in the trenches.

The idea of starting another war, made still more apocalyptic by the prospect of mass bombing of cities and poison gas, was viewed with the same sort of horror a later generation held for nuclear annihilation. War was to be avoided at almost any cost, and certainly the territorial integrity of Czechoslovakia, a faraway people of which we know little, as Chamberlain said, was a price worth paying.

When Chamberlain returned from his mission to Munich in 1938 with the piece of paper and “peace in our time”, he appeared on the balcony of Buckingham Palace with the King and Queen, an extraordinary gesture. Churchill looked rather foolish, irrelevant, and broken. There were rumours that the Conservative leadership wouldn’t mind if his local constituency party in Woodford, Essex, dropped him at the next general election, expected in the peaceful, prosperous summer of 1940.

A bronze statue of Churchill looks out over Big Ben in London
A bronze statue of Churchill looks out over Big Ben in London (AFP/Getty)

Things didn’t go according to that plan, and the man who made Churchill was of course Hitler. Without Hitler there would certainly have been no Churchill Myth, and Winston Spencer Churchill might well have subsided into retirement (he was 65 in 1939) and obscurity, famous only for a string of mistakes and misjudgments, wrong on every major issue of his time, a witty, clever man with a nice turn of phrase, more showbiz than statesman, a leftover from the Edwardian era.

That is except for two footnotes; pioneering the tank in 1915 and, in 1908, the labour exchanges (which we now know as “Job Centre Plus”). But war, sadly, proved him right on the most crucial matter of all – national independence. Even when he joined the war cabinet as a minister, the Government still headed by Chamberlain, he was in the company of some colleagues who believed, quite simply, that the war was unwinnable, and that even if it were it would leave Britain bankrupt and broken, a pyrrhic victory at best.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer fretted in Cabinet that the bombing of factories in Germany might expose Britain to insurance claims. Why not, they wondered, take the hints from Berlin and allow Hitler to dominate Europe in return for Britain keeping is global possession and naval supremacy? Why not? The answer was given by Churchill in his famous first speech as premier on May 13 1940.

The personal bit is inscribed on the new fiver; “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat,” but he went on to chart a policy people found compelling. “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival. Let that be realised; no survival for the British Empire, no survival for all that the British Empire has stood for, no survival for the urge and impulse of the ages, that mankind will move forward towards its goal”, he trumpeted.

Incidentally, it was a Churchillian blunder that paved the way to his entering Number 10. An expedition by British forces to Norway, the battle of Narvik, with which Churchill was deeply involved, was a fiasco that so damaged Chamberlain that he had to resign, making way for Churchill, who unaccountably escaped blame.

The Labour Party, never fond of Churchill, agreed to serve under him, and the national effort to wage total war was begun in earnest. It was a lonely struggle. After the fall of France a few months later and before the entry of Russia and America into the war in 1941, the British, with the Commonwealth, did stand alone.

Churchill’s leadership at that time was about resisting those who would deal with Hitler, bringing his Labour colleagues on board, the defiant rhetoric, the slow process of securing assistance from the US, putting the stark choice between independence and becoming a Nazi satellite state. These were Churchill’s abiding contributions to Britain’s story.

He made his share of errors after 1940. He himself, for example, admitted culpability in the fall of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, an event that shattered European prestige across Asia for ever: “I ought to have known. My advisers ought to have known and I ought to have been told, and I myself ought to have asked” (about why the British defences were so poor).

When he’d won the war, he went on to lose the 1945 general election in a Labour landslide. He returned to power to no great effect in 1951, and hung on to his job for far too long. After suffering several strokes, kept secret, he finally retired after his 80th birthday, in 1955.

He had served his country from the reign of Victoria to Elizabeth II, from the Battle of Omdurman to the atomic age. Yet in all that span he had just one single year of greatness in a career that was usually unmitigated failure: 1940.

That is why the myths or legends about Churchill aren’t alternatives, but just parts of the truth. It’s pointless to try and balance them up and calculate some mechanical “net” judgement in the balance. This complex, unpredictable, flawed and amazing man deserves better than that; and he does deserve to be on the fivers.

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