This article and the following one are about Winston Churchill. This first one is by Chris Deerin – prolific writer and Scottish Daily Mail columnist. His piece is longish, but rewards with reading, especially the final paragraph. [Click on image to expand and learn more].
There are two stories from the extraordinary life of Winston Churchill that I’ve always found particularly affecting. Actually, both are from after his death, the 50th anniversary of which we mark this week.
The first is that as Churchill’s coffin was carried up the Thames on the Royal barge the mighty cranes of London lowered their jibs, forming a titanic, silent honour guard, steel behemoths acknowledging the passing of one of their own: a fellow heavy-lifter, a stout-hearted load-bearer whose long labours were, at last, complete.
The second was told to me as a young journalist, and has been a source of inspiration ever since. As Churchill’s body lay in state, the Daily Mail’s Vincent Mulchrone went along to observe the scene, and produced a paragraph that is surely as perfect as any ever written: ‘Two rivers run silently through London tonight, and one is made of people. Dark and quiet as the night-time Thames itself, it flows through Westminster Hall, eddying about the foot of the rock called Churchill.’ Elegant and devastating. Churchill himself would have approved. Though a man of action, his true passion was language, as his physician Lord Moran recounts: ‘Winston feasts on the sounds of his adjectives; he likes to use four or five words all with the same meaning, as an old man shows you his orchids; not to show them off, but just because he loves them.’ Words provided his income while out of power, and made him when in it.
It’s no surprise that the great man’s death inspired such intense emotions — our debt to him is so large as to be almost immeasurable. And those emotions have barely faded over the past five decades. There will be many articles published this week, lots of them adulatory, others seeking to debunk his reputation. Churchill provides an easy target for the assassin’s glinting pen: the foolish grandstanding when dealing with the Siege of Sidney Street, the decision to deploy troops against striking miners in Tonypandy, his sanctioning of the use of tear gas against Kurdish tribesmen in Iraq, the First World War catastrophe of the Dardanelles, the levelling of Dresden in the Second, his refusal to countenance Indian independence… there’s plenty more.
But Churchill was 90 when he died, and had lived through two world wars, the start of the Cold War, six monarchs, the height of empire and the decline of empire. He had been a journalist, a soldier and a historian. He had been Prime Minister twice, Leader of the Opposition, Minister of Defence, First Lord of the Admiralty, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Secretary of State for the Colonies, Secretary of State for Air, Secretary of State for War, Minister of Munitions, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Home Secretary. That’s a lot of decisions to take; a lot to get right and a lot to get wrong.
So it’s little surprise that he is the apotheosis of the flawed giant (some flaws; some giant). Churchill is to Britain what Teddy Roosevelt is to the United States: the nation incarnate. Hard-working, unquenchably optimistic, embodying the tough, raw spirit of the frontier, committed to God and family, a believer in a ‘Square Deal’ for all: these character traits of the first President Roosevelt might as easily be attributed to America itself.
What of Churchill? Recklessly courageous, always prepared to step up, principled to the point of bloody-mindedness, irascible, a resolute genius and siren-suited eccentric, sharply witty, often squiffy… Britain’s all there, isn’t it?
There are many people better qualified than I to form a proper, rounded judgment of the man this week. But in looking for relevant lessons it is, I think, uncontroversial to suggest that in our moment of greatest danger Churchill understood what the nation needed and delivered it with little thought for personal, political or party gain. He rose to the extreme challenge of his times and brought clarity of tone, purpose and leadership. He was the essential foundation stone on which every sacrifice that followed could be built. Lord Alanbrooke, Chief of the Imperial General Staff during the Second World War and Churchill’s closest military adviser, reflected thus: ‘… occasionally such human beings make their appearance on this earth. Human beings who stand out head and shoulders above all others.’