Churchill and his contradictions

25 January 2015

Winston_Churchill_1Everyone’s getting excited about Churchill, as we approach the 50th anniversary of his funeral in 1965, when Britain stopped for the day. And he is a genuinely interesting historical figure, full of contradictions. (I’ve written about him before here). In my upbringing, in a house infused by the mining culture of the north-east of England, his triumph over fascism as a wartime leader was always inflected by his history as Home Secretary, when he sent Metropolitan Police and troops into south Wales to “keep the peace” after rioting during a lockout at Tonypandy. (Churchill’s archive insists the notion that he sent troops to deal with the miners is a “myth”, but you can make what you will of his “personal message” to strikers: “We are holding back the soldiers for the present and sending only police.”)

And as Secretary of State for War in 1919, he sent 10,000 troops onto the streets of Glasgow in response to radical protests. It was “the largest deployment of British troops on native soil,” at least outside of northern Ireland.

It’s also true that had he died when hit by a car in New York in 1931 (curiously Hitler was also hit by a car in the same year), his career would be little more than a flamboyant curiosity: youthful promise, erratic politics, and some catastrophic failures. The Dardanelles disaster in World War 1 is still used as a case study in poor decision making.

Last year I found myself reading some of the history of Churchill’s “lost decade” in the ‘30s, in which he was right about appeasement and rearmament, foolish about India, and hopelessly misguided about the Abdication.

From that, some themes emerge. They’re below the fold.

  1. He wasn’t a party politician. He followed his instincts: joining the Conservatives, joining the Liberals, re-joining the Conservatives, and mocked himself for it: “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.” He also campaigned repeatedly against his party even after re-joining the Conservatives. His campaign on India in the first half of the ’30s – he opposed the Government of India Bill, which gave India greater political autonomy  – is a good example, along with his campaign for rearmament. He also spent no time on building party alliances, and seemed to care little whom he offended. One of the reasons for this was that his earnings from his writing dwarfed his MP’s salary. In 1930, when, admittedly, he was working particularly hard, he earned £30,000, of which £500 was from being an MP.
  2. He wasn’t well-suited to party leadership. His 1945 campaign broadcast in which he said that a “Socialist Government … would have to fall back on some kind of Gestapo” was spectacularly ill-judged, and burnt his bridges to the political middle ground. It’s not chance that he first became leader of a wartime coalition, rather then being elected to office as the leader of the winning party.
  3. He was almost always famous. Churchill was a huge public figure from the 1900s, from his escape from the Boers onwards, and constantly in the public eye through his stream of newspaper columns and books, not just from his political career. There’s an account in the 1930s that he single-handedly saved a play from closure after it had received a poor review by writing a letter to the paper praising it.
  4. He was emotionally-driven. This was a strength as well as a weakness. On the Abdication Crisis, where Churchill managed to misjudge almost completely both the public and the political mood, he wrote to his friend and US Presidential adviser Bernard Baruch, that “I always prefer to accept the guidance of my heart to calculations of public feeling.” Similarly, on his campaign on India, which led him to associate himself with some of the most reactionary elements of the Conservative Party in the face of a cross-Party consensus, he wrote to Randolph Churchill: “It is a great comfort when one minds the questions one cares about far more than office, or party, or even friendships.”
  5. He had a steady nerve under pressure. This idea comes from Roy Jenkins, one of his biographers, who wrote, “He never allowed politics to make him miss deadlines. He had very good nerve, under the fire of guns and of politics.” This is more remarkable because of Churchill’s depression. He also performed well even when things weren’t going well personally. For example, just a few hours after being humiliated in the House of Commons during the Abdication debate, he still turned out to speak to the Conservative Backbench 1922 Committee on defence. And this steadiness of nerve was no more important than during the dark days of the “five days in May” after he became Prime Minister, when members of his Cabinet, notably Halifax, were urging him to negotiate with Germany.
  6. He had a huge capacity for work. The volume of his written work was enormous, with a constant stream of articles and speeches. Usually he also took care to brief himself on the issues, especially on his big campaigns. Ahead of the big speeches he would write and re-write them. But neither of these things were true of his disastrous political campaign against the India Bill.
  7. He was a better strategist than a tactician. At least when he put his mind to it. Tactics? He blew the Abdication. He alienated almost everybody over the way he used the House Committee of Privileges to try to undermine the Joint Select Committee on India, having declined to participate in the Committee. And he always thought he was better at military tactics than he was. In contrast, on strategy, in 1936, despite his dislike of Labour in the 1920s, he built a cross-party alliance with centre and left to build his anti-appeasement campaign, and did it slowly and carefully (although he almost wrecked it over the Abdication Crisis). This turned out to be decisive in 1940, when it became essential that the new leader had the support of Labour and Liberals in the House. Similarly, despite being a fervent anti-Bolshevik who had supported, while in government, the White Russians during the Civil War, he went out of his way to placate Stalin and keep him onside during World War II. And he concluded from the start of his Prime Ministership that “The two As will win the war” according to Richard Overy. The “two As” were air power and the Americans, and he stuck to that plan.

The image of Churchill at the top of this post, taken in 1941, is a public domain image.

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