So observed The Yorkshire Post with the downcast melancholy that was emblematic of the sorrowful national sentiment 50 years ago when the country gathered at St Paul’s Cathedral, a lingering beacon of hope and defiance as London withstood the Blitz, to pay its last respects to Sir Winston Churchill – that indefatigable voice of courage and counsel as Britain fought for its survival at the height of the Second World War.
Voted the greatest ever Briton in a nationwide poll in 2002, ahead of engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Diana, Princess of Wales, whose surprising elevation to third place was driven by the prevailing anti-royal sentiment that has since been reversed, reverence for the “Old Warrior” has grown with the passage of time while respect for more recent leaders has plunged.
The absence of Churchillian orators in the Houses of Parliament also explains this outburst by 80-year-old Austin Mitchell, the outgoing Great Grimsby MP. “Politics is no longer an elite game but a mundane, middle-rank job, attractive to the second and third rate but not the most able,” he bemoaned. “First-class minds have moved out. We’ve no deep thinkers... no wits... no orators... Ministers read prepared statements, backbenchers read sixth-form essays, head down.”
Such charges could never be levelled against this country’s wartime leader whose towering intellect, foresight and command of the English language inspired and galvanised Britain in the face of Nazi tyranny. No premier, past or present, has commanded such respect, but Churchill – it should be remembered – was a man of his time whose unorthodox and maverick style of leadership may have been challenged by the level of scrutiny that exists today.
On reading The Churchill Factor, Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s appreciation of his own political hero, it is striking that Britain’s war leader wrote his own speeches – a reason why he spoke with such conviction while today’s party leaders struggle to be heard and make an impact.
As Churchill left a RAF bunker in 1940 after watching the Battle of Britain being waged over London, he barked at his military secretary General Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay: “Don’t speak to me. I have never been so moved.” Five minutes later, after sombre contemplation, the newly-appointed elected premier articulated his thoughts with eloquent clarity of purpose that would help change the course of war. “Never in the field of human conflict has so much been owed by so many to so few.”
With one eye on his own leadership ambitions, Johnson – a politician who likes to regard himself as a linguist – offered this insight. “We begin with the elevated diction – ‘the field of human conflict’ is a pompous and typically Churchillian circumlocution for war. Then we go to those short Anglo-Saxon zingers. Look how much work those six words are made to do.”
I’m not sure Churchill would have spoken, or written, terms like “Anglo-Saxon zingers” which are classic Johnson trademarks.
Johnson does, however, make a more serious point with this comparison: “Hitler showed the evil that could be done by the art of rhetoric. Churchill showed how it could help to save humanity.
“It has been said that the difference between Hitler’s speeches and Churchill’s speeches was that Hitler made you think he could do anything, Churchill made you think you could do anything. The world was lucky he was there to give the roar.”
Few, if any, would disagree.
In contrast to contemporary politics, Churchill was also the consummate diplomat. On a perilous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean in 1941 to meet President Roosevelt in Newfoundland, and attempt to hasten America’s involvement in the Second World War, Britain’s leader cabled the White House. “We are just off. It is 27 years ago today that the Huns began their last war. We must make a good job of it this time. Twice ought to be enough.” As Johnson noted in his book: “We, eh? Twice, eh? That must have seemed a bit presumptuous. No one in Washington has given any commitments to entering another world war, let alone to sending American troops. Sedulously Churchill works on that idea: of the two nations, united in language, ideals, culture.”
What did Churchill get in return? A communiqué entitled the “Atlantic Charter” which the Americans did not even read. But it bought Britain precious time. “The awful truth – and one he masterfully strove to conceal from Parliament and public – is that in spite of all his expert dramaturgy he had virtually nothing to show,” noted Johnson.
In this regard, Churchill was fortunate that he did not have to operate under the glare of the 24/7 news media which would have irritated him immensely. The hardest question, in an era of deference, was ‘Would you like to say anything to the country, Prime Minister?’
At a time when the national cause trumped all other considerations, there was also little of the political spin which preceded David Cameron’s White House love-in with Barack Obama last week. And leaders only spoke when they had a meaningful contribution to make, hence Churchill’s long absences from the limelight at the height of war.
The difference, as Douglas Hurd, the former Foreign Secretary, once told me, is that too many politicians believe that it is their role to help fill air-time. Could Churchill have survived if there had been greater scrutiny, for example, after he returned empty-handed from his talks with Roosevelt?
Britain’s wartime leaders were also blessed by the remarkable secrecy and the “Careless talk costs lives” mantra. Even though Churchill was forbidden from sailing across the English Channel on June 6, 1944, for the Normandy Landings, he was instrumental in the deception of Germany. I remember working in Milton Keynes in the early 1990s when British Telecom submitted a planning application to demolish the codebreaking huts at Bletchley Park which are now a national monument, and how its former staff were still reluctant to talk about the site’s importance because they had signed the Official Secrets Act. Compare and contrast this with the running commentary which accompanies the military operations of today – some elements of the supposed secret services leak more than a colander.
This equally applies to Churchill’s character. His random acts of kindness became legendary, such as ordering his driver en route to his country retreat at Chartwell to stop at the same newsstand so he could pass his cigar to the vendor. Or the DBE honour which he bestowed on the Ministry of Defence cleaner whose son had come across some carelessly discarded military documents on the invasion of Anzio.
But what would the country have made of Churchill if they had known the bill from his wine merchant was three times the salary of the average manual worker, that he battled long bouts of depression and was regarded as a maverick because of his fondness for dictating long spiels in the middle of the night?
The point is this. Because Churchill had the fortitude to hold the country together, there was a tolerance to his eccentricities which his successors have not enjoyed. Gordon Brown, for example, lost most of his authority, following the election-that-never-was of 2007 and the financial meltdown.
Regard for Churchill also grows because of the wobbliness of today’s political leaders – however I’m not sure today’s electorate would indulge a leader who flitted between political parties, as Britain’s wartime leader did.
But there is another difference. Unlike those whose place in history was achieved because of their callous disregard for humanity, Sir Winston Churchill was the ultimate freedom fighter who made the world a better place. It is no wonder that people felt Britain was a lesser place without his mere presence – he was a one-off who thrived because of the circumstances that defined his premiership.
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