Quite rightly, today (24th January, 2015) we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passing of one of Britain’s greatest politicians, Winston Churchill. But amid all the accolades to this ‘Greatest Briton’ is there another Churchill who also should not be forgotten, Churchill the failed strategist, enemy of trade unions, reactionary imperialist and one who stayed on in the Commons after his best years were behind him?
Churchill was for much of his career (and here 1940-5 was very much the exception) a divisive figure viewed by many as a party traitor and by others as positively Neanderthal on matters such as India and its demands for independence. This piece is not intended to be balanced or to take away in any way his immense contribution to the war effort in 1940-5; it is, however, meant to highlight the other aspects of his career and to encourage us to see him as the consummate and extremely long-serving politician that he was, with all the good and bad that comes from that. Also by necessity, it is a far from complete or detailed analysis of his career.
|Churchill the Liberal "rat"|
(with Lloyd George)
Then there is Churchill the ‘enemy of the working class’. Having overseen some important social reforms in the 1906-10 Liberal Government, he was at the forefront of efforts in the period 1910-11 as Home Secretary to crush strikes by miners in South Wales. He was also, lest we forget, from the political elite, an aristocratic family and a moneyed background. Interestingly (and not unlike a few MPs since) he went on a speaking tour throughout Britain and the United States after first getting elected to Parliament, raising £10,000 for himself (about £940,000 today), and also in 1923, acted as a paid consultant for Burmah Oil to lobby the British government to allow that company to have exclusive rights to Persian (Iranian) oil resources. He was always (or at least until 1940 at any rate) regarded with hostility and suspicion on the Left and among the trade union movement.
There is also
‘Churchill the strategist’, and a failed one at that. He bears (and to his
credit accepted) much of the blame for the disastrous Dardanelles campaign in
1915, a failed effort to take Turkey (Germany’s ally in the war) by means of a
badly planned, though bravely executed, amphibious landing at Gallipoli. This is
often highlighted by military strategists as a very good reason and case study
of why politicians should not get involved in the finer details of military
|As First Lord of the Admiralty,|
Churchill presided over the disaster of Gallipoli,
which nearly destroyed his career
When it comes to Empire, Churchill was also far from being a clear-sighted visionary. This is especially true in his approach to India in the 1930s. Churchill opposed Gandhi's peaceful disobedience revolt and the Indian Independence movement in the 1930s. He also reportedly favoured letting Gandhi die if he went on a hunger strike. During the first half of the 1930s, Churchill was outspoken in his opposition to granting Dominion status (i.e. some self-government) to India. He was also a founder of the India Defence League, a group dedicated to the preservation of British power in India. The ‘winds of change’ with regard to our ability to hold on to an unaffordable and increasing untenable Empire seem not to have been present in his political antennae at that time. Surely this was a case of being a ‘Die-hard’ on the wrong issue at the wrong time?
|Labour landslide in 1945|
When he regained office in 1951, most historians tend to agree that his record as a peacetime Prime Minister was mediocre – incidentally it also saw the introduction of prescription charges in the NHS. Yet having handed over the premiership to Eden in 1955, Churchill refused to retire entirely from politics, and stood twice more for his Woodford constituency in northeast London serving as an MP until nearly 90, yet attending the Commons increasingly rarely, preferring to relax at his country house in Kent or on the French Riviera. Is part of a successful career knowing when to quit?
|inspirational war leader|
Allow me to end with a personal anecdote. In in my own earliest days, Churchill caused a small degree of family division. Apparently I watched his state funeral live on TV – a maiden aunt had decided this would be good for me; as a very (!) young baby I was in no position either to argue or assent. My mother, however, thought it a daft idea, not because she was ‘anti- Churchill’, but because she couldn’t see the point for one of such tender an age – she also never entirely saw eye to eye with my aunt! The point is, perhaps, that we should not view Churchill entirely through rose-tinted spectacles but as a ‘warts and all’ professional politician which is fundamentally what he was.