Heroes and thinkers: Winston Churchill

Like most British people who grew up this side of World War II, I’ve always hero-worshipped Winston Churchill. Everyone remembers Churchill as the hero who “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle” in Great Britain’s darkest hour. They remember the man who was right to point out the dangers of German National Socialism – at a time when the entire political establishment wanted to appease or ignore Hitler.

But Churchill was more than that. Never a libertarian – in the sense in which we understand that word today – he nevertheless had an unrivalled understanding of why liberty is important. Churchill had a genuine love and appreciation for the history and institutions of the Anglosphere. He literally wrote the book on it. He understood that freedom under the rule of law was the foundation stone of the English-speaking political tradition.

As a child of both the English aristocracy and of free-wheeling American capitalism, Churchill grew to love the wider world of the “English-speaking peoples”. He would ultimately become its greatest champion.

Today we think of Churchill as a unifying figure, in stark contrast to a certain other great twentieth century Conservative Prime Minister. But – before World War II at least – Churchill was in fact an incredibly divisive figure. Like Mrs Thatcher, he was right when it counted most.

Churchill never fit the mold of any one political party. He was bigger than all of them. He left the Conservative Party when it abandoned free trade and abandoned the Liberals when that once-glorious party – weakened by internal strife and the rise of Labour – imploded in the early 1920s. Unsurprisingly, Churchill the ‘disloyal’ rebel excelled at making enemies.

With Lloyd George he founded the modern welfare state, playing a major role in the creation of state unemployment insurance and the state pension. Churchill favoured a welfare system based on insurance. He did not foresee his creation mutating into the grotesque benefits leviathan of our age.

Churchill had more than his fair share of blunders, mishaps and mistakes. His tremendous enthusiasm as First Lord of the Admiralty for the disastrous 1915 Gallipoli offensive saw him lose both his position in the government and his reputation.

His decision as Chancellor of the Exchequer in 1924 to return Britain to the Gold Standard at the prewar rate – despite the obvious wartime devaluation of the pound – resulted in deflation, unemployment and industrial unrest.

His lifelong opposition to Indian independence (he once described Gandhi as a half-naked “fakir”) and his support for Edward VIII during the abdication crisis saw him reviled by liberal opinion as an obsolete reactionary, a Colonel Blimp figure.

These catastrophes – every single one of them – nearly finished Churchill. A lesser man would have given up. Churchill came back stronger every time. The conventional wisdom was that Churchill was a maverick, a scoundrel and a has-been. But Winston Spencer Churchill was never a man to follow conventional wisdom.

Churchill was right far more often than he was wrong. He was a lifelong free-trader who understood that, far from creating poverty through unemployment, free trade brought down the cost of food and raw materials. “To think you can make a man richer by putting on a tax”, he said in 1904, “is like a man thinking that he can stand in a bucket and lift himself up by the handle”.

When Lenin’s Bolsheviks took power in Russia in the years following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Churchill sprung into action. Soviet Communism, he declared, must be “strangled in it’s cradle”. Ultimately Allied intervention failed, but Churchill was right to point out the danger. Under Lenin and his disciple Stalin, millions would die or be sent to the gulags. The missionary religion of revolutionary Marxism would gain a base from which to export it’s unique brand of messianic terror across the globe.

Almost alone, Churchill saw the danger posed to the free world by the totalitarian powers. As the whole continent of Europe fell under the spell of fascism, Churchill urged action. Only through muscular deterrent could Nazi Germany be faced down. Appeasement was politically popular in the mid 1930s, so virtually no one supported him.

Prime Ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain regarded him as somewhere between a joke and a greater threat to national security than Hitler. A generation scarred by the horrors of the Great War was not keen to repeat the experience. Churchill’s repeated calls for re-armament were derided by left and right as the belligerent jingoism of a ‘warmonger’.

A few short years later, the ‘warmonger’ was proved right once again.

There are moments in history that define a people and a nation. Churchill’s decision to fight on in 1940 – when the war seemed lost and all of Europe had fallen to the German blitzkrieg – was one of those moments. In the face of a divided War Cabinet, Churchill appealed directly to Parliament. “I am convinced”, he told the House of Commons, “that every one of you would rise up and tear me down from my place if I were for one moment to contemplate parley or surrender”.

Churchill’s ability to to lead and inspire – even in the darkest of times – was nothing short of astounding. His wartime speeches have rightly become legendary even to those who know nothing else about him.

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender”, he announced to a Britain pummelled by the bombs of the Luftwaffe in 1940. When the RAF turned the tide in the Battle of Britain he declared that “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour’”.

Churchill was utterly devoted to the romance of the British Empire. Yet his decision to fight in 1940 without a doubt sealed the Empire’s fate. The war dealt a series of death blows to Britain’s power and prestige. The war strained Britain’s finances to breaking point. Defeats in the Far East obliterated the aura of imperial invincibility practically overnight.

When the United States reluctantly joined the war in 1941, one of it’s key war aims was the end of British ‘imperialism’. That aim was ruthlessly pursued when British war debts were settled after the war. The second half of the twentieth century finally saw the sun set over the Imperial world.

The war also ended Churchill’s glory days as Britain’s warlord. Weary of war, the voters rejected Churchill’s appeal to national unity. For good or ill, Labour were given a mandate to build their socialist ‘New Jerusalem’. Three decades later, those same voters saw it collapse under its own contradictions.

Churchill returned to the subject of the Soviet danger in his famous speech at Fulton, Missouri, in 1946. “From Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an Iron Curtain has descended across the continent”, he claimed. Many intellectuals and politicians at the time were highly enthusiastic about Stalin’s brand of socialism. Once again, Churchill found himself branded a ‘warmonger’. Two years later the Russians blockaded Berlin.

Churchill is also bound up with the creation of modern Europe. Those who favour Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union often point to Churchill’s advocacy for a ‘united Europe’.

This is true. Churchill did indeed favour a united Europe. But he never intended that Britain be part of it. Churchill regarded Britain as “with Europe, but not of it”. The United Kingdom and the Commonwealth, with the United States, were to be “friends and sponsors of the New Europe”, not it’s servants.

Churchill lived constantly in the shade of his father, Lord Randolph Churchill and their great ancestor the Duke of Malborough. Throughout his life he sought to live up to their example, and ultimately he eclipsed them both. Lord Randolph, the founder of the Primrose League, had – in his turn – lived in the rogueish shadow of Benjamin Disraeli.

We all live in the shadow of great men and women. No one personifies this fact better than Winston Spencer Churchill. He did not merely understand that liberty and the rule of law were important – he stood and fought for them when no one else would. He did more than anyone in the twentieth century to popularise the notion that the English-speaking peoples were different from everyone else. He never gave up on any of the many occasions when he was thought to be finished. He never surrendered his conscience or his judgement to the fashionable ideas of the hour. He spoke his mind and was not afraid to be controversial. He certainly made mistakes but he is rightly lionised for his moments of triumph.

Churchill was a titan and we all live in his shadow.