I come not to praise Churchill but to bury him
Posterity will ne’er survey
A nobler grave than this:
Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:
Stop, traveller, and piss
Author Paul Reid has just finished the third and final part of William Manchester’s magisterial Churchill biography [interview here with RadionNZ’s Jim Mora], which has helped make Churchill relevant yet again.
Churchill is everywhere. In poll after poll he is voted as Britain’s Greatest Briton, the Greatest Man of the Greatest Generation, the Man of the Century. In the words of the Reid/Manchester biography he’s “a lion,” “the defender of the realm.”
Is this fair? Is it a good thing?
I say “no.”
The first half of the twentieth-century was one of the most blood-drenched in history. It was the age of total war, totalitarian torture, and the collectivisation of much of the globe—and it was followed by a Cold War and the slow economic strangulation of the West. Despite the mythology, Churchill helped it all happen. Much as Mr Churchill is lionised, it’s a simple fact he was a prime mover on the wrong side of every issue in which he was involved in all but one moment in history. The only argument I can see worth having is whether that one moment of right makes up for all those of being egregiously wrong.
Let’s make a list, then examine it:
AGAINST CHURCHILL: Tonypandy; Ireland; Antwerp; Gallipoli; Lusitania; Great Depression; Mussolini; Yalta; NHS; Iron Curtain; the Welfare State and “No Future”.
FOR CHURCHILL: Oratory; non-appeasement; pugnacity; inspiring Britons in their darkest hour; Chartwell.
I’ll start with the praise, it will be shorter. And mixed.
Oratory: Churchill was an undeniably brilliant speaker, one of history’s most quotable. As his own son observed, his father had “spent the best years of his life writing his extemporaneous speeches.” It was time well spent. That many of them were delivered drunk only heightens one’s admiration.
The resistance against Hitler that Churchill galvanised was done almost single-handedly from his pen, over the despatch boxes at the Commons and out—by radio—around the world. From Dunkirk to the final days of the Battle of Britain, when Britain stood virtually alone, he was immense.
Like many an orator however he had no compunction about letting facts cloud his good stories. As Robert Menzies, the Prime Minister of Australia, noted of Churchill: "His real tyrant is the glittering phrase so attractive to his mind that awkward facts have to give way."
So it was too with his military strategy, as we shall see.
Non-Appeasement: All through the thirties, British Prime Ministers gave Hitler everything he wanted—given in the hope, against all the lessons of history, that in giving an aggressor everything he wanted he wouldn’t keep coming back for more. Churchill told the country that it wouldn’t stop another world war, and would only make Hitler stronger when it started. He was right.
But Churchill never opposed the appeasement of either Japan or Italy--in fact, he encouraged it. It wasn’t a policy he himself followed on any principle then (indeed, he never held a principle he didn’t later betray), but only to achieve prominence.
Churchill himself was only occasionally even opposed to Hitler. In 1937 he wrote, "Three or four years ago I was myself a loud alarmist. . . . In spite of the risks which wait on prophecy, I declare my belief that a major war is not imminent, and I still believe that there is a good chance of no major war taking place in our lifetime. . . . I will not pretend that, if I had to choose between Communism and Nazism, I would choose Communism. . .one may dislike Hitler's system and yet admire his patriotic achievement. If our country were defeated, I hope we should find a champion as indomitable to restore our courage and lead us back to our place among the nations.”
Indeed, if he was eventually “right” on Hitler at all in 1939, it was only because at that moment his compass had swung around again, and because in these “wilderness years” he was predicting disaster everywhere simply to attract attention, crying wolf about everything from the abdication crisis the General Strike to Indian independence.
If there had been a winebox around, then like his namesake he would have managed to build a new career on the back of it.
Churchill was right about non-appeasement, but only by accident.
Pugnacity: Churchill was always right, even when he was wrong. His pugnacity, much admired when he was in the right (rarely), was nonetheless a massive liability when he was not (which was much more often). He could hold his mind to anything, until he changed it.
Inspiring Britons in their finest hour: After half a century of being wrong, Churchill’s one moment of undisputed greatness was in steeling British resistance against Hitler during the Battle of Britain, in the darkest days of the war when Britain stood virtually alone against the Nazi machine. It was his finest hour too.
Chartwell: His house in Kent—much of it built with his own hands, with its study looking across the Downs and out across the English Channel—was to die for. If you ever get a chance to visit, head to his study and savour it. A man who could build that couldn’t be all bad, could he? Could he?
Boer War: An enthusiastic self-promoter, Churchill first achieved real prominence as a journalist in the Boer War, where he quickly learned he had a taste both for for being under fire and talking himself up. His despatches from the conflict quickly became more about him than about the war. In retrospect, this was good training for his later Histories, especially those of the Second World War in which he featured again as both author and leading protagonist. Those protagonists who write history are able to benefit thereby, as he well knew.
That said, he did find time to express his “irritation that kaffirs should be allowed to fire on white men,” and to write about the world’s first concentration camps, built by the British to house Boer prisoners. Observing these camps in which 115,000 people were housed and 14,000 died he said they produced “the minimum of suffering” possible.
Having by his despatches achieved the prominence he always craved, he left South Africa to enter parliament.
Tonypandy and beyond: Churchill joined the Tory Party when they were in power, then switched to the Liberal Party when they were, then reverted back to the Tories when they took power back. He was his country’s early-century Peter Dunne except much more militant. He was a gunboat diplomat even in internal affairs.
As a Tory Home Secretary in 1910, he infamously sent soldiers in to break the miners’ strike in the Welsh coal fields. In a riot at Tonypandy, following Churchill’s order, the soldiers fired into the crowd, injuring hundreds. Later in Llanelli however, several miners were shot dead when soldiers fired on them for blocking a rail crossing. He sent gunboats up the Mersey as a persuader to recalcitrant strikers there. And he backed police who charged and brutalised suffragette protestors in Parliament Square in November of the same year.
He never lost his love of firepower in defence of “public order.” During the 1926 General Strike, he was reported to have argued, unsuccessfully, for machine guns to be used on strikers.
Despite this, Churchill was among those who pushed (as a Liberal MP) for pro-Union legislation, especially the Trades Disputes Act of 1906 that exempted unions from the charge of common assault for violence on picket lines, from charges of racketeering for threatening non-union labour during strikes, and from responsibility for property damage by their wrecking crews—putting them in effect above the law.
Churchill was wrong on everything in his Internal Affairs portfolio, and helped set up the pro-union legislation that helped make post-war Britain the sick man of Europe.
First World War: In 1925, he wrote, "The story of the human race is war." It is not. The great story of the human race, especially evident in the enormous prosperity produced in the world since the Industrial Revolution, is increasing peaceful cooperation and the efforts by some to stop it through war. However, for Churchill, periods without war offered nothing but "the bland skies of peace and platitude."
Asquith, his own Prime Minister, wrote on the eve of World War One, the most pointless war of bloody destruction in all of human history, and fought for no good reason other than that Europe was bored with peace: "Winston very bellicose and demanding immediate mobilization . . . has got all his war paint on." Churchill backed war from the start, and when the final crisis came, Churchill was all smiles and the only cabinet member to harbour no qualms at all about entering the conflict—a war that destroyed European culture and released the nihilism, relativism and collectivism that poisoned the whole century.
Historian Niall Ferguson said of the First World War it "was nothing less than the greatest error in modern history.”
Winston Churchill was wrong on the First World War.
Antwerp: Virtually his first action as a War Lord—which as First Lord of the Admiralty he was quite literally—was to promote a pointless defence of an Antwerp the Belgians themselves had already abandoned, and the rest of the British High Command refused to countenance, a personally-driven action that cost 2500 lives in defence of a pointless position the Germans would have been unable to hold even if it had been lost to them.
Lusitania: Wanting America in the First War, and enticing them by every means at his disposal (just as he did in the Second) Churchill did everything he could to get innocent Americans killed, telling the President of the UK Board of Trade a week before a German U-Boat torpedoed the American passenger liner Lusitania that it was "most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany."
He encouraged neutral liners to bring armaments, as the Lusitania did, and ordered merchant ships to ram German U-Boats when they could—which, primitive as they were in this first Battle of the Atlantic, was easier than it sounds.
Gallipoli: New Zealanders should not need reminding of the debacle that was the Gallipoli campaign—that ill-fated debacle dreamed up to attack Imperial Germany through the “soft underbelly” of Europe. What they might need reminding of however is the man whose brainchild this debacle was, springing as it did entirely from the head of Winston Spencer Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time—an entirely political appointment.
He was sacked, and dispatched to the Western Front.
Churchill was wrong on Gallipoli—and 130,000 soldiers died to prove it.
Socialism: Rather than being an opponent of socialism, Churchill as a Liberal member was a student of the Fabians, Visiting Germany before the First War, he was in awe of Bismarck’s system whereby he enlisted souls in the German state. "My heart was filled with admiration of the patient genius which had added these social bulwarks to the many glories of the German race." He set out, in his words, to "thrust a big slice of Bismarckianism over the whole underside of our industrial system."
In 1908, Churchill announced in a speech in Dundee: "I am on the side of those who think that a greater collective sentiment should be introduced into the State and the municipalities. I should like to see the State undertaking new functions." Churchill even said: "I go farther; I should like to see the State embark on various novel and adventurous experiments." During the 1914-18 war he declared, "Our whole nation must be organized, must be socialized if you like the word." And despite Churchill describing during the 1945 election his partners in the national unity government, the Labour Party, as totalitarians, it was Churchill himself who had accepted the infamous Beveridge Report that laid the foundations for the post-war welfare state and Keynesian (mis)management of the economy.
As Ludwig Von Mises wrote in 1950, "It is noteworthy to remember that British socialism was not an achievement of Mr. Attlee's Labor Government, but of the war cabinet of Mr. Winston Churchill."
Churchill was wrong on socialism, and helped to deliver it to the whole English-speaking world—and we are all still paying for that.
Great Depression: Churchill found political power again after the First World War ended. Britain entered the war as the wealthiest country on the planet. After the slaughter and the borrowing and money-printing to pay for it, it found itself after the war as an economic loser.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer however, Churchill faced the choice in the mid-twenties of how to go back on the gold standard after the financial losses and the war’s massive monetary inflation. Never one to let his complete ignorance of a subject affect his decision-making, he decided (based on no economic knowledge whatsoever) that his patriotism dictated that the British pound must go back onto the dollar at precisely the same rate as it was before the great calamity. “The pound must look the dollar in the face,” he said.
The effect of his decision was to promote a massive devaluation of the pound (causing such economic gloom that Britain missed out on most of the twenties boom enjoyed in the rest of the developed world), and a massive gold loss to the States that the newly created Federal Reserve countered with historically unprecedented low interest rates and massive infusions of printed paper, pumping up the American boom and spreading the bubble into the stock market, where it burst in the Great Crash of 1929.
Churchill was wrong on money. And the whole world suffered because of it.
Fascism: During Britain’s 1926 General Strike Churchill praised Mussolini’s labour policies. In showing the world "a way to combat subversive forces,” he said, the Fascism of Benito Mussolini had "rendered a service to the whole world." Writing to Mussolini, Churchill told him, “If I had been an Italian I am sure I should have been whole-heartedly with you in your triumphant struggle.
Franco, meanwhile, was a “great man” who had “united his country.”
Italy: In Word War II Churchill repeated his mistake of the First World War, repeatedly insisting that the Allies waste precious resources attacking Europe through what he again insisted was the “soft underbelly if Europe.” 60,000 Allied soldiers died proving him wrong—no campaign in Western Europe cost more than the Italian campaign in terms of lives lost and wounds suffered by infantry forces—a campaign that proved to have no strategic importance whatsoever to victory in Europe; fought in the end only to prove to Stalin that his Allies were “doing something” while the Soviets bore the brunt of Nazi aggression.
India: In 1943, India endured a terrible famine. As a War Prime Minister, Churchill was ultimately in charge of the Empire’s food rationing—he had made it so—and was directly involved in denying food shipments to India, berating the population for "breeding like rabbits and being paid a million a day by us for doing nothing by us about the war."
When Churchill requisitioned the Bengalis boats, essential for the distribution of rice, Earl Mountbatten made arrangements for 10% of the space on his battleships to be put aside for rice distribution. Churchill promptly withdrew 10% of Mountbatten's battleships.
Between three and four million people died in the Bengali famine, four times the number who perished in the Irish famine.
Churchill was wrong on India.
Stalin: Churchill brought Stalin on board as an ally in the world’s fight to the death against totalitarianism. If that sounds absurd, it gets worse.
Britain was at war because Nazi Germany had invaded Poland; on the same day, Stalin’s Russia invaded Poland from the other side—yet war was declared against one totalitarian invader, and two years later when the dictators finally fell out Britain became an ally of the other.
When challenged over befriending a dictator he had previously opposed, Churchill told Parliament his single-minded aim was to defeat Hitler, and "If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons."
He did much more than that.
Despite starting the war over Poland, under Churchill’s leadership Britain helped deliver into the hands of the Russian devil the British intelligence service, Poland (over which Britain’s war began), German industry and the German rocket programme, and the entire population of Eastern Europe—delivering over 40 million human beings into inhuman bondage behind what he himself later identified as an “Iron Curtain.”
Churchill was dead wrong on Joseph Stalin.
Yalta: Churchill’s great capitulation to the man he called “Uncle Joe” was at Yalta, the meeting of Roosevelt, Stalin and Churchill in which Churchill presented the murderer of Christians, Jews and Muslims alike with a crusader’s sword, declaring him to be a defender of the Christian West. Stalin just smiled, and proceeded to let Churchill and Roosevelt help him fleece and dismember conquered Europe, and deliver it to the Soviet Union—along with the unconquered populations and escapees from Stalin’s brutality FDR and the champion of the free west delivered up to him on a plate to murder—around to million souls who were the Victims of Yalta, “repatriated” to Soviet Russia at the point of western guns to face Stalin’s firing squads when they got there. Not to mention the half-million German workers he and Roosevelt agreed could be sent to Stalin as slave labourers as part of the “reparations” for a war fought in part against totalitarian slave labour.
The Welfare State: Some of you might recall that the title of George Orwell’s 1984 was a numerical anagram. It wasn’t set decades in the future, it was set in the Britain of 1948 when it was written—the grey, poverty-stricken post-war Britain of ration cards, import restrictions and nearly complete collectivisation that Churchill had done so much to create.
Modern mythology insists that the British Labour Party created the post-war British welfare state. Yet as a war-time Prime Minister it was Winston Spencer Churchill that accepted and began implementing the Beveridge report that became the Labour Party template for wall-to-wall nationalisation, borrow-and-hope Keynesianism, die-while-you-wait healthcare and the cradle-to-grave Welfare State.
No surprise really, when we recall his pre-WWI time in the Liberal cabinet when he sponsored the National Insurance Act, the first minimum-wages legislation, and a budget including the introduction of new taxes on the wealthy to allow for the creation of new social welfare programmes—helping transform liberalism from the classical laissez-faire liberalism of the nineteenth century to the progressive big-government liberalism of the twentieth.
And how easily it is forgotten that as Conservative Prime Minister again from 1951, taking over a country that had just thrown out in disgust the Attlee Labour Government they held responsible for the transformation of their formerly green and pleasant land, Churchill did precisely nothing to reverse their experiment—essentially making a cross-party consensus thereby that cemented in place the Welfare State from that time to this, and (by virtue of the influence that it still retained in the world) for most parts of the post-war world.
And when Margaret Thatcher attempted to pick up the dregs of Britain from where this consensus had left it (before being knifed by her party for betraying the consensus)—the nadir it had reached when John Lydon looked at the Britain his elders had made and sang about ‘No Future—it was ironically the Britain, and the world, her own hero had done so much to create.
Because it was he that helped transform both conservatism and liberalism from forces for freedom and small-government to the virtually identical Tweedledum and Tweedlumber of big government they are today.
Is there any part of the globe or of politics his multiple errors of judgement have not touched?
Not the British Empire, which during the war he declared it was his solemn mission to protect and preserve , the same Empire that over the course of that war he helped to bankrupt and denude, and which ten years later as post-war Prime Minister he helped to dismantle.
No, not even Ireland. After the First World War, when Irishmen and women were debating their country’s future—should it be with or without Britain?—Winston Churchill made up their minds for many of them by sending over the soldiers known as the Black and Tans, emptying the slums and prisons of Britain so it was said to send armed hooligans over to Ireland to burn homes, shoot civilians, and so persuade all Ireland they were right that all Englishmen were murderers.
In the rightful abhorrence against these scum felt by virtually all of Ireland, Winston Churchill helped create the IRA.
Not Yugoslavia or Greece. More interested in military action itself than what the action was for, he promoted communist partisan leaders in both places, utterly disinterested in the consequences. (In post-war Greece it was a communist interregnum and a bloody civil war. In Yugoslavia it was communist rule until the bloodletting of the 90s following the death of former partisan leader Tito.)
When an aide pointed out that Tito intended to transform Yugoslavia into a Communist dictatorship on the Stalinist model, Churchill retorted: "Do you intend to live there?"
Not the Middle East either. He set up Transjordan and Iraq simply by drawing lines on a map, solely to ensure secure oil supplies for the British navy—which he as First Lord had converted from coal.
After the First World War, it was discovered that Britain had promised the Palestine it had removed from the Ottomans to everyone—to Jews, to Arabs, to an “international zone” of Palestinian Arabs. As Secretary of State for the Colonies in 1922 he issued a white paper fudging the issue, effectively kicking the can down the road for later generations to handle.
That can has exploded every decade since.
So how, with that litany of disaster behind him, can Winston Churchill feasibly be considered among the greatest men of the twentieth century? How has history been so kind to him?
Because he had no principles, Churchill leaves no message and no vision for the future. All he left behind was a vision of the past he ill-defended, and a legacy for the future of a compromised conservatism and socialised liberalism. Does this deserve any credit?
Churchill himself told his secretary Robert Boothby some years after the war that the final verdict of history on him should take into account the political results of his actions during the war and added, "Judged by this standard, I am not sure that I shall be held to have done very well."
Perhaps the answer lies in his own finest hour, inspired by everything that made him, that was by a fluke of history important to all of us. American civil rights leader Richard B. Moore, observed it was “a most rare and fortunate coincidence” that at that moment “the vital interests of the British Empire” coincided “with those of the great overwhelming majority of mankind.”
Another reason perhaps is because he represents that century so well—in part because he helped make it, and us, the way it was and is.
Another is because whatever else he was, he remained a consummate politician. And as psychologist Michael Hurd recently observed, “politics is not based on actual accomplishments nor even reality at all. It’s all about perception and manipulation.”
And maybe in the end history has been so kind to Winston for reasons he himself expected. "History will be kind to me,” he said, “for I intend to write it."