Winston Churchill's legacy is everywhere in the modern world. There has been no one remotely like him before or since
24 January 2015
He disappeared in the dead of winter. It was exactly 50 years ago today that the heart of Sir Winston Churchill beat its last; and as soon as the news was broken to London and to Britain it was obvious that this death was some kind of a punctuation mark in the narrative of the country. A fierce and surging life force had been finally extinguished, after 90 event-stuffed years. The people had lost a man who had not only led Britain in war, but who had become in a sense emblematic of what greatness the nation still possessed.
When I look at the footage of the funeral that took place at the end of the month – the vast, mainly silent crowds, many of them weeping, the lipsticked and peroxided young women, the old men with sunken chaps and trilbies – I feel the weight of the event in their minds. I understand why my grandparents kept a copy of the newspaper front page. I can see why they regarded him as the greatest Englishman (or Briton, or human being, come to that) of his age. They were right, and in the last half century that judgment has been – if anything – strengthened.
Of course there will always be those who try to turn their revisionist peashooters against the dreadnought of his reputation. There are right-wing nutters who regard him as a warmonger, who needlessly embroiled Britain in the Second World War; and there are po-faced Lefties who think he was a sexist, racist, imperialist exponent of outrageous political incorrectness. Well, let them chirrup and babble away. Most sensible people can see the magnitude of what he achieved – but more importantly they have an instinctive understanding of the personality that made those achievements possible.
The story of Churchill is a universal human parable, and it is fundamentally about courage. You see that statue in Parliament square, of that colossal figure with the bison-like shoulders. It’s an illusion. He wasn’t a big man – in fact he was not much more than five foot seven inches tall, and as a young man his chest was only 31 inches – a relative runt. He was scared at school by boys who threw cricket balls at him. To his shame, he ran away. And yet he grew up to exhibit the most astonishing bravery, a courage that was both physical and moral.
He is the only Prime Minister in history to have come under fire, in battle, on four continents (and to have fired back, with lethal effect, in perhaps a dozen cases), including the last cavalry charge ever made by the British army.
When the airplane was in its infancy – barely 10 years after Wilbur and Orville Wright had taken off from Kitty Hawk – he was repeatedly going aloft in these hair-raising contraptions. And when his instructors were killed, and when his family and friends were begging him to desist, he continued to fly. He got lost in a storm over France in 1919, and almost perished. He had a serious crash in Buc aerodrome in France, when the plane’s skis hit the edge of a concealed road at the end of the runway, and the machine did a somersault – like a shot rabbit, he said – and he found himself hanging upside down in his harness. The following month he had an even worse crash at Croydon – smashing into the ground so hard that the propeller was buried, his co-pilot knocked out.
You read these accounts of disaster and you wonder what was going on in his head, that made him continue with something so obviously risky. Why did he push it? Why, when he served in the trenches in the First War, did he go out into No Man’s Land not once but 36 times, going so close as to be able to hear the Germans talking? Yes, he wanted to be thought brave, and yes, to some extent he was a self-invented person. But in the end the man he created was the real Churchill.
He dared to say things that no one would dare say today, and to behave in ways that would terrify the milquetoast politicians of the 21st century. When Bessie Braddock, the Socialist MP, told him he was drunk, he really did retort that she was ugly, but he would be sober in the morning. On being told that the Lord Privy Seal was waiting to see him, it seems that he really did growl out – from his position on the lavatory – that he was sealed in the privy and could only deal with one shit at a time. During one of his many infuriating conversations with Gen de Gaulle, in the depths of the war, he really does appear to have used his superb and menacing franglais: “Et marquez mes mots, mon ami, si vous me double-crosserez, je vous liquiderai.”
He imposed his own exuberant and uninhibited style on events. Who else could have wandered naked round the White House, or appeared before the US press corps wearing a bizarre purple romper suit of his own design, tailored by Turnbull and Asser? He truly did begin the day with champagne, or a glass of whisky and water, and then go on all day to consume quantities of booze that would have felled a bullock. He could have a three course dinner accompanied by champagne, white wine, red wine and brandy – and then go into his office at 10 pm, and start dictating vast periods of prose, much of it brilliant and original.
He didn’t just pose with cigars, or wave them around for Freudian effect. He smoked with a gusto that would today be unforgiveable – perhaps 250,000 in his lifetime, mainly Romeo y Julietas. The stubs were collected and given to the gardener at Chartwell (the poor chap died of cancer).
He seemed to be running, in other words, on a type of high-octane hydrocarbon that was available to no one else; and it was this energy, combined with his boldness, that produced his astonishing political fertility.
Our children are taught roughly what he did in the Second World War – but we have been in danger of forgetting his crucial role in helping to win the First. It is no exaggeration to say that he was one of the fathers of the tank – whose battlefield breakthroughs were eventually of critical importance; and it was his sedulous preparation of the Fleet, as First Lord of the Admiralty – not least the historic geo-strategic decision to convert the dreadnoughts from coal to oil – that meant England never lost control of the Channel.
His legacy is everywhere in the modern world. He helped to found the modern welfare state, pioneering unemployment insurance and other social protections in the years before the First World War. He was instrumental in the creation of modern Ireland, of Israel, of the map of much of the Middle East. He was one of the very first, in the Thirties, to adumbrate the idea of a “United States of Europe” – though he was ultimately ambiguous about exactly what role Britain should play.
It is Churchill’s shaping mind that still dominates our thinking about the world role of Britain – at the centre of three interconnecting circles: the Atlantic alliance, the relationship with Europe, and the relationship with the former Empire and Commonwealth.
Yes, of course he made catastrophic mistakes. He cannot be entirely exculpated for Gallipoli; he misread the public mood over the Abdication; it is hard to read some of his remarks about Indian independence without a shudder of embarrassment. But in these very disasters we see his boldness and determination to stick with the course he had embarked on, even if everyone was saying he was wrong.
And it was precisely that stubbornness and that bravery which was required in 1940. Think yourself into that smoke-filled room in May, that fateful meeting of the seven-strong War Cabinet. France had fallen; Europe had been engulfed by the Nazis; the Russians had done a nauseating deal with Hitler; the Americans were standing on the sidelines. Britain was alone, and the pressure to do a deal was overwhelming. The City wanted it; much of the media wanted it; Halifax wanted it; Chamberlain wanted it; Labour would have gone along.
It was Churchill and Churchill alone who was decisive in ensuring that Britain continued to fight. It was Churchill who was crucial to bringing America in – more than two years later. If Churchill had not been Prime Minister in 1940, there seems little doubt that Britain would have made an accommodation with evil – letting Hitler have his way and plunging Europe into darkness and barbarism. No one else round that table had the guts to do what he did; and it is to him, therefore, that the world owes thanks for the eventual victory over Nazism, and the 70 years of peace that have followed.
The more you study Churchill, the more I hope you will share my conviction that there has been no one remotely like him before or since.