Churchill is a very recognisable figure in the imagination of the world. Many see him as the greatest ever Englishman standing up to the evil of fascism and winning against the odds. He was a parliamentarian for over 60 years and held most of the senior posts in Government. But what was it that made the man and what prepared him for the greatest crisis the world had ever faced.
He was born into a minor aristocratic family. His father Lord Randolph was a distant and discouraging father, who was a failed politician. His mother was an American socialite of dubious sexual morals. Once sent to boarding school he had scarcely any contact with either. His upbringing was mainly carried out by his nanny. She would school him in the bible, and although he was never a churchman or talked about his personal morality, his great-grandson Duncan Sandys would claim recently that this education moulded him at an early age. He told a friend at school, when he was sixteen, that he believed his destiny was to save London, England and the Empire. This prescient knowledge was indicative of a man who would become sure of his convictions and prophetic in his analysis, although not always correct.
He became a cavalry officer, and was hungry for action. He served in India in the 1890’s and supplemented his income as a journalist. This led him to South Africa as a correspondent, where his unit was not sent, and he ventured close to the Boer lines and despite a brave attempt at rescuing the army group he was with he was captured, potentially as a spy. A well-publicised escape put him the public eye.
Election to parliament followed for the Conservative party in 1900. But he was always a man who stood by his convictions. He was never accepted by the Tories, as he was not regarded as a real aristocrat. He also had great compassion for the poor and other countries. So when Jo Chamberlain promoted protectionism in 1903 he reacted strongly against it. With great confidence and impudence, he wrote to the Prime Minister denouncing protectionism is favour of free trade. The breach with Tories widened as he recognised their superior attitude and nonchalance towards the poor. Soon he would cross the floor to the Liberals.
With his friend and colleague, David Lloyd George, the Liberals had two young men in a hurry. By the time of the First World War, Churchill was a rising star in the War Cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty. He will always be remembered for the failed Dardanelles expedition that he took responsibility for. In truth there was poor planning and execution by others that contributed to the failure and mindless slaughter of British, Antipodean and French troops. He wore the scar always and tried to heal the wound in the 2nd World War by suggesting similar routes into Europe from the South-East. If it had been planned in a more committed way and executed with determination, the allies could have threatened Constantinople and forced the Ottomans out of the War. Some say it was the only daring plan in the whole war. Churchill lost his job but stayed in Cabinet with a watching brief. The inaction led to depression and soon he was volunteering for the front for a year. While not welcomed on arrival, he soon won over the officers and men with his enthusiasm and commitment demonstrating his social equality with all. One of the tensions in his character was his bullish excitement in anticipation of conflict, contrasted with his hatred of wasted lives that would always play on his conscience.
He returned to Government and was involved in fighting against the Irish Revolution and formation of the Irish Free State. In negotiating with the brilliant young freedom fighter, Michael Collins, he found a man of action that he could admire. While at first he found his methods abhorrent, he quickly came to realise the strategic genius that Collins brought to the Irish question. His carefully planned surgical strikes against particular points of the British rule in Ireland, contrasted greatly with the uncontrolled destruction wrought by the Black and Tans Churchill. It is possible that this moral divergence was what prompted the Brits to admit defeat and finally allow partial freedom. Churchill actioned the formation of the Irish Free State and admired and learnt from Collins, lessons would be learnt for the future.
The Liberal Party had great success in the formation of the welfare state at this time, but it did not last and when Churchill found him out of power and parliament he returned to the Tories and was Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1924-29. He enjoyed the post and although not an economist, nor did he achieve anything remarkable; he created a great show in the Commons demonstrating his skill at manipulating the budget. He was a brilliant orator, he had wit and sarcasm, and he would speak for over an hour at times entertaining both sides of the house. He would get hold of an issue and be wholehearted in his conviction of the rightness of his cause. Issues of principle included Free Trade, anti-Communism and Socialism, keeping India in the Empire and eventually opposition to fascism. His devotion to the causes infuriated his colleagues, who would rather haver and edge round the issues as their priority was political and party power first. He could embarrass those around him, but also enthral them with the majesty of his oration. He had many friends and some bitter enemies. Some were both at the same time, as they may have liked or disliked, agreed or disagreed, but they all found it difficult to deal with a man so confident in his convictions, unbending in his methods and with the hands on attention to detail, that could become infuriating to deal with. This kept him out of Government in the 1930’s.
By the mid 1930’s, Churchill was recognising the new enemy on the horizon. Hitler was leading a Social Darwinist, atheist, occultist, false science, militaristic and racist movement in Germany. Churchill recognised the German supremacism sprouting from their culture of Wagner and others and the godless nihilism of Nietzsche that had been prevalent before the First World War. That philosophy had not been defeated and had got worse. Churchill had a sense of morality from childhood and he recognised the importance of that for the cohesion of society and the onward progress of humanity. He rightly recognised the Nazi threat of undermining all these things and ultimately surrendering to man’s base instincts.
He was a lone voice for the latter part of the 30’s. The Church and many others wanted peace and preached appeasement, granting concessions to Hitler in exchange for being left alone. Many in the English Establishment were supportive of Hitler’s ideas. The moral mood in Europe had drifted away from traditional spirituality after the faith ruining trauma of the first war and Churchill’s views were not shared by many.
His analysis was of course correct and the whole of his life could be summed up as the bringing to the point where he took on the task he believed to be his destiny. Through failure and opposition he honed his skills and knowledge. At the Declaration of War he was accepted back into the Government as First Lord of the Admiralty. Within nine months the House of Commons called for the resignation of Chamberlain the great appeaser, and the choice was between Churchill and Halifax. As a peer Halifax refused being unable to run the Commons, so Churchill took the premiership. The Battle for France was just starting and soon to be lost, but unknown the country the next few days were spent with Churchill and Halifax arguing in the War Cabinet as to whether to come to terms with Hitler or fight him. Churchill was not sure of his position, but on bringing in the lesser ministers his support was confirmed and the War was on.
He brought in men of all parties, Industrialists and Trade Unionists in a Coalition to unite the country. On entering the Commons he was cheered to the rafters by Labour, but not by the Conservatives who still did not trust him, but after the miracle of the evacuation of Dunkirk when 300,000 were rescued when he expected 50,000. His famous speeches that followed, full of gravitas and total commitment to the cause of defeating the great evil that was spreading across Europe turned the tide of opinion and united the country and eventually the world in opposing fascism.
It was his foresight and conviction that prepared him for the vital moment when he did not flinch at the crucial moment in 1940 when all appeared lost, and the country stood alone on principle. The people recognised that for all his skills and despite his faults he was the man of the moment and they would just have to get behind him as there was no other choice.
His methods were primarily in inspiring the main characters. Regular communication with Roosevelt led to a secret meeting in 1941 of Newfoundland that led to the North Atlantic treaty. This relationship he knew was vital as bringing the Americans and their industry into the war was the way to win. He managed de Gaulle and flew to Moscow to charm Stalin after the USSR was invaded. He liked to visit the battlefields and meet and discuss strategy and tactics with Generals. He found that a constant drip feed of alcohol would keep him stimulated and motivated. Inaction led to depression, failure led to depression but he would constantly bounce back and his buoyant encouragement was the thing that kept him apart from the rest.
As the War progressed he began to be of lesser importance. The Russian role clearly became the vital one and the Western allies were tasked with finding points of attack to take the pressure of the East and help Stalin and the Russians. He had conferences with Stalin and Roosevelt, but they were ultimately ineffective and towards the end of the war he began to recognise the Russian totalitarian threat to Eastern Europe and could not get the Americans to join him in combating it.
As War ended there was a need for an election. The country surprised the politicians with a Labour landslide. The people having sacrificed themselves in war refused to return to the old Tory order and demanded a welfare state and the National Health Service. Churchill took it personally, when ironically many would have been happy for him to lead the country with Labour as he was clearly an individual and independent man whose egalitarianism set him apart from his party.
Time in opposition allowed him to write his own history and secure his finances. He fought to regain office that he felt had been ungraciously snatched from him the point of victory and glory. This he achieved in 1951 and his next two years were successful, but his diminution in health and work rate affected performance. He was expected to resign in favour of Anthony Eden, but that took two years. It seemed that the responsibility of office and the need to have a proper handover, the threat of Nuclear War which was determined to settle in Conference were always enticing him to one more manoeuvre. Perhaps the knowledge that retirement would mean the inactivity that he hated so much. In lonely inactivity Churchill would descend into the Black Dog depression that he had marched away from all his life. Saving the World from Hitler had led to the threat of Nuclear War and the potential end of the human race and few were prepared to face or recognise it. The hand off to Eden had happened too late and his performance with the debacle of Suez demonstrated the loss of the great statesman led to a great loss of prestige and power of Britain.
He survived another 10 years finally letting go, and perhaps at his funeral the cranes of the London dockyards, dipped in recognition of a man who violently disagreed with their left wing politics demonstrated the final honour. Truthfully he fought courageously, wholeheartedly and self sacrificially to create a world where it was possible for all men and women to have their views and aspirations represented through democracy. He never fitted in anywhere he went, but it was his charm and force of personality that fought tirelessly for the principles that he was convinced were correct. The French speak of Liberty, Egalite and Brotherhood and these embodied his mission. He would fight to maintain these in Parliament by all means necessary. If politics failed and led to War, then he was prepared to wholeheartedly fight to win, minimise losses and show magnanimity to the vanquished.
His legacy is that he won the battle he was destined for, but died knowing the War was not won and he could not win them all. His words will live on I hope forever, if they are censored then we all have lost. He knew when to fight, he knew how to fight and he knew why to fight, and said, “Victory at all costs, victory despite all terror, victory however long and hard the road maybe, for without victory there is no survival.”