We are all supposed these days to have outgrown the ‘kings-and-queens’ type of history lesson. One doesn't have to be a self-styled historian to recognise that the forces which actually shape our world have little to do with the personal foibles, ambitions and family squabbles of ephemeral monarchs. History is a chronicle of competing power groups, sometimes defined by ideology, sometimes not, each seeking to enlarge its sphere of influence and territory by any means available. And there will always be certain individuals more than willing to serve an ideological cause not really as a matter of principle but in furtherance of their own ambition. The growing cynicism of the electorate is fuelled by revelations of the crude egotism and greed of politicians fond of cloaking themselves in high-sounding altruistic rhetoric.
Modern history affords no better example of ruthless self-aggrandisement posing as national leadership than the career of the late Winston Churchill. For over fifty years the public has been fed highly misleading and absurdly over-simplified versions of the ‘Churchill Story’; and the most recent example was The Gathering Storm television docudrama about Churchill's life and activities in the years leading up to the 1939-45 conflict with Germany. This got the usual ‘great-man-finally-recognised-as-such’ treatment, portraying Churchill as a great national leader kept in the political wilderness by lesser beings until the outbreak of hostilities.
Whatever the Second World War meant to anybody else (and this writer recalls finding his mother in tears in the kitchen after the news broke), it was splendid news for a man desperately anxious to prove himself a worthy descendant of the illustrious Duke of Marlborough. This ambition was reinforced by his need to redeem himself after his personal endorsement of the disastrous Gallipoli campaign in World War I, which gave political rivals every reason to distance themselves from his military adventuring.
Intriguing for office
In the years languishing at his grandiose country home he had whiled away the time in journalism, writing about his ancestors, painting in water-colours and intriguing with influential people to support his return to office.
No one seriously denies the need at that time for British preparedness in the face of German rearmament and expansionist policies; but Churchill was far from being alone in recognising this. From 1940, however, he was happily flexing his histrionic muscles as Prime Minister and ‘war leader’ for all the world to see, regardless of the disaster of Dunkirk and the dire state of the country. This was surely a time for sober appraisal of the European situation and how best to safeguard this country's longer-term interests without being bogged down in a mutually catastrophic war with Germany. In short, this was a time for real statesmanship.
And then, in May 1941, came the dramatic arrival of Rudolf Hess by parachute, bearing German proposals for an honourable and peaceful resolution of the conflict. These gave Britain an opportunity to end the war without diminishing her independence, power and influence in the world and allowing Germany to concentrate on the looming Soviet menace. But this presented Churchill himself with the horrifying prospect of peacetime mediocrity.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the luckless Hess was hastily bundled into permanent solitary confinement as a ‘war criminal’, leaving Churchill free to crank up the war machine for another four disastrous years. He needed to win a war, to be seen as a ‘warlord’, and that governed everything he said and did then and afterwards. All the sonorous and well rehearsed speech-making, the V-sign and the cigar-brandishing appearances were designed to keep the public in thrall to this consummate performer while the country's longer-term interests were being pawned for short-term American favours. The so-called ‘Hess incident’ justifiably looms over any assessment of Churchill's true place in Britain's history; and, such as it was, Churchill's stature as a national leader could only grow in Hitler's shadow. Still, while Hess was left to rot in Spandau prison for over 45 years, Churchill puffed big cigars and wrote his version of how, with a certain amount of help from the Americans and Russians, he had saved the world.
But the long-suffering British public had rumbled him by 1945, as the first post-war election demonstrated. The incalculable damage inflicted on this country by such self-aggrandisement is a fact not to be obscured by his ‘British Bulldog’ characterisation in the mass media. ‘American lapdog’ is how less sycophantic historians see him now.
Sulking in the wilderness
And his personal rancour towards Adolf Hitler was understandable enough: here was an ex-corporal from nowhere (albeit with two Iron Crosses) who had by sheer force of will raised Germany from ignominious defeat to European dominance while he - Marlborough's heir, no less - was just a part-time journalist still sulking in the political wilderness. Couple this personal rancour with indebtedness to Jewish financiers for support and with his overweening ambition, and what emerges is a monument to human vanity rather than a national hero. The tragedy is that so much was endured by so many so that publishers and TV programmers could perpetuate this insufferable mythology.
So we may have left the ‘kings-and-queens’ version of history behind, but it is high time we left the Churchill version behind as well. Churchill's egotism and theatrical brand of ‘patriotism’ were in no real sense decisive factors in our nation's history, except negatively. He never could distinguish a battle from a war, and he surrendered this nation's future for his vainglorious present. Astute and ruthless politician he was, yes; talented writer and speech-maker he was too; but national leader he never was, and his vision of Britain's future never extended much further than the smoke of his ever-present cigar. All things considered, therefore, the most appropriate salute to the Churchill myth is the one he was constantly seen giving, but the other way round.