At first I groaned when, browsing the bookstore shelves, my eyes first caught Boris Johnson’s biography of Winston Churchill.
Surely, I thought, the great man needs no more testaments. Millions of words written by Churchill himself, and prolific writers like Martin Gilbert and Roy Jenkins, have entombed his rightful and unmatched place in not just English speaking but global folklore.
I also fear that many now see Churchill not as ‘The Last Lion’ – the title of William Manchester’s thick trilogy of biographies – but ‘the exhausted lion’, struggling for relevance in the restless modern Western democracy.
Johnson’s mural of Churchill, however, is refreshing and current. He has commendably produced a queer-eye-for-the-straight guy makeover of Churchill for modern times. Snappy paragraphs, a good turn of phrase and solid depth combine delivering Churchill to the distracted, semi-interested or younger reader.
‘He is so obviously a character that should appeal to young people today,’ writes Johnson. ‘He was eccentric, over the top, camp, with his own special trademark clothes – and a thoroughgoing genius.’
To reveal just how critical Churchill is to modern history, it’s worth recalling simply how close Britain came to cutting a deal with Hitler.
Germany’s rapid advance through Western Europe, their pact with Italy’s Mussolini, the (until then) limited military opposition they faced and the impending French collapse painted a formidable picture of a rampaging and unstoppable Hitler.
The British press and intellectual class, matched with heartbreaking memories of the Great War and the prospect of more bloodshed, aligned public positions to negotiation over opposition.
Bleak signals from America also failed to inspire vigour. ‘Democracy is finished in England,’ the United States Ambassador Joe Kennedy proclaimed towards the end of 1940. JFK’s father, Johnson writes, was ‘endlessly requesting meetings with Hitler and sending lip-smackingly gloomy messages to Washington.’
Sitting in a Cabinet meeting at around this time, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, Churchill faced the total sum of these gloomy sentiments. You can appreciate the tension. Here is the weight of an entire British War Cabinet, stacked with good men knowing the rougher edges of war, leaning on Churchill to reconcile with Hitler over dragging the nation toward a horizon of more bloodshed.
Lord Halifax, a formidable figure himself, urged Britain to snatch at Italian offers of mediation. ‘We would get better terms now,’ he stressed, ‘before France had gone out of the war – before the Lutfwaffe had come over and destroyed our aircraft factories.’
But Churchill had other ideas. Reconvening the entire Cabinet after a two-hour break he drew upon his stirring powers of oratory. ‘If this long island story of ours is to end at last,’ you can hear him thundering, ‘let it end only when each one of us lies choking in his own blood upon the ground.’ Britain, he said, would not descend into ‘a slave state’ by bending to capitulation.
‘Even in 1940,’ Johnson writes, ‘there was no one else who could conceivably have given that kind of leadership – not Attlee, not Chamberlain, not Lloyd George, and certainly not the most serious alternative, the 3rd Viscount Halifax.’ Clearly, if anyone else sat in the Prime Minister’s seat on that day, it could be a very different world.
Unique times, of course, require unique character. I believe Churchill possessed two elements that form the best kind of man – a lethally sharp brain matched with hard-won experience. A policy expert, we might say today, with intimate knowledge of life on the ground.
‘By the time he was twenty five,’ for example, ‘he had become a Member of Parliament, written innumerable articles, delivered many handsomely paid lectures, and reported from multiple war zones.’ But it wasn’t a hassle free existence. Churchill also carries ‘the unique distinction, as a prime minister, of having been shot at on four continents.’
Indeed, this represents the sheer range to Churchill. His life was so eventful, expansive, jam-packed and full of reform, policy initiatives and ideas that he had an answer to every charge of racism, sexism and elitism that has tugged at his legacy.
Many, says Johnson, have been ‘conditioned to think of him as an opportunist, a turncoat, a blowhard, an egotist, a rotter, a bounder, a cad, and on several well-attested occasions a downright drunk.’
Exonerating him to some degree, of course, were the beliefs of the day. Eugenics, for example, was followed with the same zeal as climate change advocates today.
Was he a heavy drinker? His breath, complained Halifax, ‘oozes port, brandy and the chewed cigar.’ But Churchill would hardly stagger around craving a hangover cure – his psychological make-up meant he constantly sought the sensation and distraction of hard work.
Was he a rigid and unbending conservative? Not so. ‘He was radical precisely because he was conservative,’ writes Johnson. ‘He knew what all sensible Tories know – that the only way to keep things the same is to make sure you change them; or as Burke puts it, a state without the means of change is without the means of its conservation.’
Did he dislike the poor? He certainly knew that a life of narrow opportunity could breed ignorance. ‘Fancy living in one of these streets,’ he said to his private secretary Eddy Marsh while visiting Midland, ‘never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savoury… never saying anything clever!’
Yet he was hardly an enemy of the down-trodden and less well-off. In fact Churchill ‘was father of important social reforms: bringing the pension age down to sixty-five, setting up Labour Exchanges, giving workers the tea break, and so on – while always remaining, on the whole, a steady defender of free markets.’ Churchill is also credited as starting the modern job centre. ‘Next time you look at a Jobcentre Plus,’ writes Johnson, ‘Winston Churchill started those.’
While many can appreciate Churchill’s legacy there are perhaps even more that simply don’t know who he is. ‘Shursheel?’ asks a young cigar clerk after Johnson asks if he knows him. ‘An old leader? Yes, maybe, I think. I don’t know,’ the young man shrugs.
Historical amnesia, matched with the painful idea of taking time to rediscover the past, doesn’t lend itself to an expanding legacy in the West. School curriculums are now tending to replace grand historical figures – colloquially known as Dead White Males – with more ‘diverse’ figures to help stoke equality and self-esteem.
But how exactly is Churchill a man for all times? Even quoting him, as former New York Mayor Rudi Giuliani found, can invite charges of grandiosity. The scale and challenge of Churchill’s era, many feel, is simply unique for its time.
And today’s policy landscape, by contrast, is clearly occupied by more sedate issues than total war. Indeed, the big policy decisions upon former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s 1997 election, for example, included reaffirming a tobacco advertising ban and a seven-point plan to revive the British film industry. Other issues, such as gay marriage and shorter prison sentences for criminals, have received a laser-like focus as among the most pressing issues facing modern Britain.
While today’s issues have become more sedate or ‘technical’, however, the need for Churchill’s principles have not. As long as the criteria for international belligerents, for example, remains firmly dealing with seismic threats then Iran’s unchecked advance toward nuclear weapons will demand similar needs for acute judgement, unbending leadership and decisive action.
Churchill also teaches us about character and persistence, which remains instrumental not just for personal but national resolve. Revealingly, Johnson describes Churchill’s famous ‘We shall fight on the beaches’ speech as possessing ‘a wonderful vagueness.’ Here Johnson speculates that Churchill ‘doesn’t really know what he wants (a problem that was to become politically acute once the war was over), except a general sense of benignity and happiness and peace and the perseveration of the world he grew up in.’
And it’s in this last point that we, especially in Western democracies, find a modest but enduring lesson in leadership. Free people don’t always like being told what’s important to them. ‘People talk about the vision thing,’ says the Australian electoral strategist Mark Textor. ‘To me it’s not vision, it’s the horizon that people seek.’ Leaders like Churchill who understand this are essential during times of crisis or when leadership matters most.
We hope that future democratic leaders don’t face the scale of chaos or destitution of Churchill’s time. Regardless, however, a man for all times offers principles for all times.