When Winston Churchill died in 1965, it marked the end of an era. Already a shade past his 90th birthday, he was the last survivor of the Second World War’s top political leadership. And given his youthful participation in a cavalry charge at the 1898 Battle of Omdurman, it was as if a relic from a bygone age had finally crossed over.
But because Churchill and Irish nationalism were never good friends, his death generated no sense of loss in my parents’ house in Dublin. To them, he would always be the pugnacious face of unwanted imperialism.
Mind you, my father did admire Churchill’s rhetorical skills, and was quick to acknowledge that he’d “won the war for the British” – a development that was by then considered an unambiguously good thing. My mother, though, viewed Churchill as a “ruffian.”
And Stanley Baldwin, Britain’s three-time Conservative prime minister in the 1920s and 30s, would have tended to agree with her. Referring to Churchill and his sometime confederate David Lloyd George, Baldwin put it this way: “L.G. was born a cad and never forgot it; Winston was born a gentleman and never remembered it.”
Churchill already had a long and controversial career behind him by the time he finally entered 10 Downing Street in 1940. As a cabinet minister decades earlier, he’d been a social reformer, taking a lead role in initiatives like the introduction of Britain’s first national insurance scheme. Later, he was dubbed a reactionary.
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Along the way, he acquired the reputation of being extremely ambitious, a man who always kept a keen eye on the main chance. And whether through that ambition, principle, or some combination of the two, his political journey took his party affiliation from Conservative to Liberal and then back again. In the process, he was never short of a stylish turn of phrase, noting that “Anyone can rat, but it takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”
Then, with the war in Europe just won, he was unceremoniously evicted from office in the general election of 1945. It was a development that many observers – Josef Stalin included – found astonishing. How could the electorate be so ungrateful to the man who’d led them from the darkest depths to the triumph of victory?
However, there’s another way of looking at it. Be they prime ministers or presidents, democratic leaders shouldn’t be confused with kings. Instead, they’re public employees whose service can be terminated at the public’s discretion. And whether the electorate’s decision in this particular instance was wise or unwise, exercising its prerogative the way it did was an expression of a mature democracy.
Of all Churchill’s political relationships, the longest-running was with that other contemporary giant, and erstwhile prime minister, David Lloyd George. And it was, as the historian Richard Toye’s 2007 study makes clear, a very tangled relationship indeed, one much murkier than the legend of a “David and Winston” partnership would have you believe.
To be sure, they were sometimes allies, and each was always cognizant of the other’s strengths. But they were also rivals, given to wariness and suspicion. To quote a senior politician acquainted with both, “the relationship between these two titans was based on mutual admiration and mutual fear, but not on mutual affection.”
Of all the sources of tension, perhaps the most intriguing came when Churchill attempted to woo the 77-year-old Lloyd George into his newly formed wartime government. Despite persistent efforts, Lloyd George demurred, and the reason why remains an unresolved subject of speculation.
Citing such evidence as his private observation that “I shall wait until Winston is bust,” it’s been suggested that Lloyd George saw himself as the man to assume office and negotiate acceptable terms with Germany if and when it became obvious that Churchill’s resistance to Hitler was futile. Had that happened, the history of the 20th century would have taken a very different turn.
Winston Churchill was a man of immense talents, great strengths and many flaws. Bottom line, however, he was a very useful guy to have around when the chips were down.
And if it’s now become fashionable to decry him as a racist and such, it’s worth remembering that very few of us would survive an onslaught from the pieties and platitudes of an age other than our own.
Pat Murphy casts a history buff’s eye at the goings-on in our world. Never cynical – well, perhaps a little bit.
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