Yves here. I find this intriguing because I had long thought (and perhaps this has changed) that Americans held Churchill in higher esteem than Brits.
By Gerry Hassan, a writer, commentator and academic on Scottish and UK politics, power, democracy and social change. He has written or edited over two dozen books including Scotland the Bold and the newly published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On (edited with Simon Barrow). His writing can be found at: www.gerryhassan.com. Originally published at openDemocracy
Are our finest hours all behind us? What of the untold Churchill stories? And who can speak for Britain, today?
Winston Churchill is everywhere at the moment. It is as if there are only two narratives about Britain’s past: the Second World War and dramas about people of privilege, class and money.
The Churchill industry can cover both strands, and for some his is the last uncontested great story of Britain. To others he is the last statesman who unreservedly represented the moral case for Britain; whereas for many on the left he has long been a problem figure. And whilst this is about our past and the dark days of 1940, is also about the storm clouds gathering today – from Brexit to the widespread cynicism in politicians and institutions.
In the last year Churchill has been portrayed in the film of the same name by Brian Cox, the peacetime Churchill featured in Netflix’s ‘The Crown’, and most recently, played by Gary Oldman in ‘Darkest Hour’. Oldman’s portrayal concentrates on that watershed period in the Second World War in May 1940 where the Chamberlain Government totters and then collapses, Churchill becomes Prime Minister, and the War Cabinet debates whether to continue the war effort or to seek out peace terms.
This critical period has been covered in-depth by John Lukacs’ ‘Five Days in London, May 1940’ and more recently by Nicholas Shakespeare’s ‘Six Minutes in May: How Churchill unexpectedly became Prime Minister.’ ‘Darkest Hour’ opens with Labour leader Clement Attlee concluding the parliamentary debate that brought down Chamberlain as Prime Minister. It’s a brave opening for the film – the debate was known as the Norway debate, and its subject, the disastrous British campaign fought in Norway for which Churchill as First Lord of the Admiralty was largely responsible.
This parliamentary occasion, lasting over two days in May 1940, was one of the great House of Commons moments. Speeches had consequences. Tory rebel Leo Amery – who in 1939 had famously criticised Chamberlain’s patriotism by asking Labour’s deputy leader Arthur Greenwood to “Speak for England” – concluded his intervention by urging Chamberlain (and invoking Cromwell), “In the name of god, go”.
Chamberlain won the vote 281 to 200, but underneath the headline victory forty odd Tories had voted with Labour in the midst of war, and a greater number abstained. Despite all of this, Chamberlain attempted to stay in office and bring Labour into formal coalition (the period from September 1939 to this point having only a ‘National’ Tory-dominated administration).
‘Darkest Hour’ is good on the parliamentary machinations when Britain was under greatest threat. Cinematically the film showcases a kind of dark, claustrophic ‘House of Cards’. It illuminates the fundamental differences and personal tensions between Churchill, Chamberlain, and then Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (widely seen and favoured as Chamberlain’s natural successor).
Churchill became Prime Minister on 10 May 1940: the day Hitler invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. In resulting discussions, Chamberlain and Halifax pushed hard for Britain to consider finding out what terms Hitler would consider as a basis for peace talks. Halifax is well portrayed in the film presenting what to many seemed sensible, saying Churchill’s florid rhetoric – “Words and words and only more words” – was all that he could offer. All three were acting from a desire to preserve Britain’s Empire and its global role.
But where ‘Darkest Hour’ falls short, despite opening with Clement Attlee, is in failing to give proper space to the critical role of the Labour leadership and wider Labour Party over the course of May 1940. Clement Attlee opened the Norway debate for the opposition; it was Labour post-debate who forced a vote of no confidence which altered the course of British history.
When Chamberlain faced the realities of his diminished stature following the parliamentary vote, he didn’t resign immediately. It was Labour’s attitude – that no coalition government was possible unless Chamberlain resigned – which forced him to go. It was Labour – specifically its Labour conference and its National Executive Committee (in a good story for Corbynistas) meeting in Bournemouth – which made the ultimate decision not to go into coalition with Chamberlain, but to support coalition under a new PM. Thus Labour played a pivotal role in not only bringing Chamberlain down, but aiding Churchill into Downing Street.
Another area that ‘Darkest Hour’ badly fails is in its limited portrayal of the War Cabinet discussions on continuing the war. These were discussions in which the Labour members – Attlee and Greenwood – were central. In nine War Cabinet discussions over three days Chamberlain and Halifax made the case for finding out what Hitler’s peace terms might be, while Attlee and Greenwood stood with Churchill. Fascinatingly, at a time when Clement Attlee’s stock has never been higher, and when his patriotism has been celebrated in John Bew’s recent biography, this watershed moment for Britain, and Labour’s role in it, is often passed over. ‘Darkest Hour’ tells part of this story, but in a partisan way, only telling it from a Tory perspective.
Many Untold Churchill Stories
There are many untold Churchill stories, just as there are many finest hours. Amongst the untold Churchills there is that of the anti-Labour politician who ended up working closely in coalition with the Labour Party. Paul Mason observed that Churchill was a “flawed elitist” whose “genius in 1940 was not just that he understood the military situation, but dynamics of the British class system and what kept working class radicalism in check”.
There is the Churchill of the ruling class: a man of privilege and Empire who presided over the decline of the former and demise of the latter. Anthony Barnett wrote in ‘Iron Britannia’: “Churchill fought tooth and nail to defend the Empire, but in the end – to save British sovereignty itself – he formed, and was a prisoner of, a politics which accepted the liquidation of the Empire …”
Always present, if often unstated, is the Churchill of England as Britain, reflected in Harold Macmillan’s eulogy upon hearing of Churchill’s death in 1965: ‘England without Winston! It seems impossible. Not even the oldest of us can remember England without him as a considerable figure.’
And then there is Churchill – the Dundee years, when he represented the city as Liberal MP from 1908-22 at a time when parliamentarians didn’t need to visit their constituency, let alone live there. His defeat in 1922 at the hands of Prohibitionist Edwin ‘Neddy’ Scrymgeour was one of the great radical stories of the city (one my parents told me with pride). T.E. Lawrence said of Churchill’s defeat, ‘What bloody shits the Dundeans must be’; Churchill himself felt that given the life ‘the Dundee folk have to live’, they had ‘many excuses.’ Personally, I would like to see this Churchill set to film although it probably never will.
Churchill may be the most invoked Tory in history, but he represented much more than Toryism in 1940. Anthony Barnett coined the term ‘Churchillism’ to describe the national spirit which emerged in 1940,s distinct from the man. Churchillism was a national compact which brought together Tories, Liberals, Labour and other elites in a project which incorporated organised labour in return for economic and social rights such as the welfare state. But also evident was the passing of global leadership to the USA, the invention of the so-called ‘special relationship’ (a term coined by Churchill) and UK subservience to the national interests of the US.
If it hadn’t been for 1940 and Hitler, history would not have been kind to Churchill. It would have regarded him as a reckless military adventurer (Gallipoli long staining his reputation), and an unreconstructed British imperialist out of touch in the 1930s even with most Tories, one who was intransigent on Gandhi and Indian home rule.
Then there is his record on trade union and labour issues such as Tonypandy in 1910-11 and the General Strike of 1926. Yet, George Orwell, as he often did, got it right when he wrote after the war about Churchill that he was a “tough and humorous old man” who the British people “would not accept as a peacetime leader but whom in the moment of disaster they felt to be representative of themselves.”
Are Our Best Days Behind us?
As Britain’s attempts at renewal and modernisation have proven elusive, from the post-war settlement to Thatcherism and Blairism, popular folklore has returned again and again to the summer of 1940 and the appeal of Churchill. Similarly, it isn’t surprising that as Labour have experienced a chequered record in office since 1945, so the legend of Clement Attlee has grown steadily.
The past as costume drama or fighting the ultimate forces of darkness which the Nazis provide, says something telling about Britain today. It points to a chronic failure of progress and absence of hope that the current state of abyss can be collectively changed. It says that the best days of Britain, days when there was purpose and clarity, are behind it, and that there are no current good stories. This obsession with the past is a diminishing one which damages the body politic now.
The veneration of Churchill illuminates how far Britain has declined and the hold that its ruling classes have lost. Churchillism, the perspective which sprang from May 1940 was born like Gaullism in that same month of desperation and anxieties over national humiliation. But in the post-war era, Churchillism showed a pragmatism which allowed it to engage in imperial retreat and the making of the welfare state, the scale of adaption and change of which is beyond those now notionally in charge of Britain.
That’s the frightening underlying message of these films relevant today. Who is there in our political classes who can talk about principles, show vision, and invoke an emotive rhetoric, which speaks beyond party and narrow calculation? At this time of crisis and doubt in Britain, there is no prominent leader who can – to paraphrase Leo Amery – speak for Britain. That is much more difficult in the fraught Brexit Britain of 2018 than the summer of 1940, and therein lies the contemporary problem and the yearning for an age where everything seemed much more certain.
In a nutshell. A British magazine cover captured it in a row of Russian dolls, declining in stature from a caricatured Churchill, to Eden, Macmillan, and Douglas-Home. Off-stage was Harold Wilson. It also captured post-war recovery and the reintroduction of complexity and domestic tension, as opposed to the forced simplicity of wartime survival, with domestic tensions held in check for the duration.
Churchill in past tense is mythic, and malleable, as Edmund Burke is for economists and political philosophers. In reality, he was a hard, driven, practical, romantic elitist, representative of both Lloyd George’s progressivism (minus the cash for honors corruption) and Tory reaction.
His success was bolstered by the work of close associates. During the war, Eden was deputy prime minister, tending to practical politics in Westminster (and the foreign affairs Churchill had no interest in). Attlee, however, was Churchill’s workhorse. Derided by Churchill in postwar electioneering as a sheep in sheep’s clothing, it was Attlee who kept the wartime coalition together and parliamentary business flowing, supplying the people and their war machine. If his vision of postwar England was less soaringly romantic than Churchill’s, it was more liveable.
Thank you, Yves, for this fascinating post.
The last sentence is very interesting in light of what two of Churchill’s grandsons say. Nicholas Soames sits in the Commons for Crawley and his brother Rupert heads outsourcing giant Serco. Both are remainers and say that this yearning for certainty and harking back to the days of empire is misplaced and that most Britons have little idea of their grandfather outside the narrative that is “taught” schools and “reported” by the MSM.
Nick Soames, a former Hussars officer, is one the last characters left in a Commons debased with humourless accountants, career politicians, spivs et al. He campaigned in tweed and on horseback at the last election.
Thank you, my good Colonel.
But I have to protest just a little on this (I know that wasn’t you speaking): “and say that this yearning for certainty and harking back to the days of empire is misplaced ”
Part A is correct. Part B, well pls show me the working class Briton that “harks back for the days of empire”..
I also cannot resist saying re. Part A, is that the financial people complaining about “the little peoples yearning for certainty” are a bit comical. Given that the base source of their irritation is the loss of certainty in their own profession.
Thank you, Chris.
It’s not just some, but not all, working class Brits who yearn for empire. I know some. My father served alongside many. Mum works with some.
That was my paraphrasing. The Soames brothers have also spoken of the 1950s. It’s short hand for an era of British dominance, autonomy etc.
I don’t dispute what you say about certainty, especially as I work in finance, and add that I wasn’t referring to little people.
My memories of the 50’s were that it was grim. Difficult, poor, with the economy drained by payments on war loans, for both WW1 and WW 2, to the US.
I guess prior to Suez people could still believe the UK was a major power, so may be early 1950s? There were still quite a few colonies at that point. I remember people in the early 1960s thinking they might be able to have a career as a colonial administrator in Africa. Then Macmillan spoke of the winds of change and put paid to those ideas.
I took an early interest in public affairs so the fact I can remember some of things from my own experience does not mean I am completely antiquated yet!
I would beg to disagree about your notion that working class Britons (or to be precise, English) don’t hark back to the empire. I’ve met plenty who do (mostly, it should be said, in Essex and Yorkshire pubs). There are plenty of them in Northern Ireland, you’ll see them shouting about it on the 12th July. Alf Garnet was fictional, but he was based on plenty of real working class and lower middle class folk, usually those between the generation who fought and those too young to remember it.
In a number of articles Nicholas Boyle has written on this topic (this one may be behind a paywall). There seems a general tendancy to ascribe Brexit to a class losing out to neoliberalism, but the actual voting patterns tell a very different story. A very strong driver of the vote was straight up English nationalism (and its offshoots in parts of the Celtic lands), and this crossed class.
Before persons discuss the political make-up of Wales, it a good starting point to look at just how dominated Wales is by the English, who as a group, constitute more than 20% of our population – the last Census in Wales shows less than 73% of the population are actually Welsh born. Further, our over 65 age group demographic is large, swelled by many English over 65s moving to Wales, thus putting great pressure on an already underfunded Wales NHS – immigration per se, that is from non-UK nations actually is not an issue when we look at the actuality, far less than in many regions of England – UKIP though successfully managed to play the race card, but that alone does not explain why in a majority Wales elected to leave the EU, nor why in South Wales ( hardly Tory territory) anti-EU sentiment was high – I suggest Cambridge-based Professors actually liaise with peers within the Wales University sector, which had they done so may have helped them draw different conclusions, namely, the Leave vote came as no shock!
Now, with one of the highest percentages of over-65s here in Wales, many of whom originated in England, obviously this impacted the actual vote, but let us not underestimate in South Wales that love of Empire or Churchill actually is not great, particularly, as with Ireland, Wales was one of the first Norman/ Plantagenist colonies – memories run deep here in South Wales, particularly with regards Churchill’s treatment of coal miners both before WWI and post WWI.
Further, and despite UKIP gaining 17% of the vote in the Welsh National Assembly elections, the fact remains that its vote has now collapsed in Wales, whilst in June 2017 the Labour Party had a majority of the vote in Wales, that is just over 50% – Corbyn playing a blinder as far as Brexit was concerned, despite the fact that most Welsh Labour MPs and the Welsh Labour Party organisation are opposed to Corbyn and the ascent of the Left, whilst being highly pro-EU.
I suggest readers who have an interest in the Politics of my neck of the woods check out Desolation Radio, which covers much of the above.
Is it relevant, do you think, that English newspapers often have a separate Scottish edition but not a separate Welsh one? I am unclear to what extent the Welsh are protected from the virulently anti EU propaganda of the English newspapers. The Scots are to a degree by having their partly separate newspapers.
We get the London editions of all national newspapers, we actually used to have several independent newspapers that published after 10.00AM each day, but these are all now part of the big UK/Multinational MSM. Indeed, we only have one printing house dedicated to Welsh Language books, so, effectively we are a colony of England, despite the advent of the Welsh Assembly.
However, as with all newspapers, actual physical print copies of newspapers are in dramatic decline. To be honest, whilst print media can brainwash, I’d say television news & current affairs has contributed more, given how much airtime has been given over to UKIP, which denies Plaid Cymru a fair hearing in Wales, despite it have no Westminster MPs.
On a positive note, UKIP in the National Assembly will be eradicated come the next Assembly Elections.
If interested, do listen to some alternative narratives than that of the mainstream, Desolation Radio being a good place to start: https://soundcloud.com/desolationradio, also try Walesonline or the South Wales Argus.
Many thanks. This is very helpful.
Apologies. I just noticed autocorrect changed your initials.
Questions underlying “who can speak for Britain (or the US) today”: what politicians still read history for context, speak in more than soundbites, write in more than strung together tweets, or have an attention span longer than the next dialing-for-dollars money beg?
Who is there in our political classes who can talk about principles, show vision, and invoke an emotive rhetoric, which speaks beyond party and narrow calculation? At this time of crisis and doubt in Britain, there is no prominent leader who can – to paraphrase Leo Amery – speak for Britain.
After nearly 40 years of laissez faire – neoliberal economics in Britain and the US the politicians have become eloquent on the subject of corporations, on the importance of corporations being allowed to operate according to their own laws. They praise corporations and condemn government as an impediment to the corporations. How then can they speak for Britain or the US as nations and governments that have larger interests than simple narrow corporate interests? The idea must make their head swim.
The press is filled with articles telling us how terrible Brexit will be for the UK. These articles are written by knowledgeable financial experts from the London / European centers. What they don’t seem to understand is that the people who voted for Brexit or Trump or Catalonia independence don’t care about the money.
Unbelievable for City financiers and bankers! What idiots these people must be!
What person struggling to survive doesn’t “care about the money”? And why is blind nationalism any better than economics as a factor for politics? Especially given the reality that England did so much damage through its empire.
The struggling person cares about the money he/she controls.
And not very much (to put it mildly) about the alleged money-problems of a bunch of neo-liberal agit-prop spouting bankers so recently bailed out by a state that had their backs and no one else’s.
In a way the experts are feeding Brexiteers – “everyone knows” that those experts are self-serving and only talking for their own class. When they predict pain, losses, suffering and misery, normal people will simply think: ”Good! Now they can have some of what I am having for the last 10 years!”
The experts and establishment have no idea how despised they generally are, clearly demonstrated by Tony Blair showing up to support Remain and the experts not getting, at all, that a solid majority of the electorate will be on any side *opposite* that slimy bastard just on the simple principle that they hate his guts and everything he says and does. Blair should have supported Brexit instead, if he had a clue at all.
The economics discussion is dead in politics because it cannot be discussed in any other framing than neo-liberalism, which means restating that corporations must win while everything else loses – because Markets. Doesn’t sell many votes, that.
Nationalism is invigorating, now finally something “higher” than the rather beige Markets, Competition and Business – that doesn’t represent anyone in particular; of course people will go for nationalism in such a weak political environment. Especially since, thanks to a thoroughly useless “left”, that is the only other dish on the political menu!
Don’t forget that Churchill helped create the financial background that brought the Nazis to power. From the Wiki:
Churchill belongs to a class of people who have no problems being cavalier with the lives of others. The man was a bit of a psychopath himself. Thrill-seeking, recklessly brave, alcoholic, philanderer, grandiose.
My very-simplified model of Churchill is that he was a brilliant upper-class adrenaline junkie with a moral compass.
At times like Gallipoli, this all works against him. At times of crisis, like 1940, this is what makes him great. His moral compass had positioned him to decry Chamberlain’s Munich Agreement which subsequently positioned him to have credibility in 1940 despite previous blunders.
while ha had gained vast experience in various parts of the world, he still had a fundamental British upper-class bias that made him relatively poor on economic and colonial issues.
Psychopath sounds about right.
What he did in Britain’s colonies before WW II, Jesus. Another thing I never learned in school.
He also had quite a lot to do with the UK going in to WW1.
It is said he died considering himself a failure. If true, and it is said that he saw his life mission as preserving the British Empire, that is understandable. The decision to enter WW1 was the beginning of the end for the Empire.
In this case many Britons hero-worship a failure. Ironic.
I know several people who love to impersonate Churchill, dressing up as him at fancy dress parties etc. I think there is something a little wrong with all of them.
Johnson of course likes to imitate Churchill, pretend that he is WSC reincarnated. Need I say more?
And let’s not forget the cold war!
He seems to have had – perhaps due to his youthful travels – an acute knowledge of what the ‘on the ground’ reality would be of many of his policies. To his credit, he rarely seemed to have morally wriggled out of the real consequences of his policies (there was no Obama style public agonising for him). He seemed to have been genuinely horrified by the reality of the RAF’s area bombing, especially after Dresden, which does set him apart from most other war leaders of the time such as Truman, who seemed not to give much thought to these things.
I’m not sure if that makes him a psychopath, but it is certainly a characteristic of his class not to shirk the horrors of whatever policy he was expounding, while still behaving in a very ruthless manner. In some respects, I prefer a leader like that than the moral weasels who seem to dominate today, especially those who witter on about human rights while sending out the drones.
Let us not forget, too, that he was behind the campaign of terror against german civilians in which most major german cities were destroyed. After the war Nazi dignitaries were hanged for much less.
To me Churchill is a perfect representative of the psycopathy of the english ruling class. Just think: fresh monuments to Bomber Harris and the Bomber Command were inaugurated as recently as 1992 and 2012.
Nazi dignitaries were not hanged for the London Blitz or even invading Belgium and France. They were generally hanged for industrialized slaughter of millions of people labeled “inferior races.”
There is a huge difference between bombing cities of people who support a regime you are fighting with and the ethnic cleansing of the Holocaust. Bear in mind that it was the Nazis and German High Command who initiated the total war Blitzkrieg concept of aerial bombardment of civilian cities beginning with Guernica in the Spanish Civil War and then became a cornerstone of their invasions of Poland, Belgium, France, and Russia.
In retrospect, historical analysis of the aerial campaigns in both Germany and Japan shows they were not as effective as the British and American commands thought in disrupting industrial production, but, in their defense, they did not have good intelligence on the details of real-time German and Japanese industrial production figures. Unfortunately the American Air Force still over-stated the benefits of high altitude mass bombing and dropped huge amounts of ordinance in the Vietnam War to little strategic effect.
One cynical thought: the brutality of the Allied air campaigns left no doubt who won WW II unlike the 1918 Armistice. This accompanied by the Marshall Plan is likely a key reason for peace in Europe and Japan since 1945 with no replays of the 1918-1939 period of revived nationalism and rearmament as there was a clean break with the past. So the horrors may have had a small silver lining.
You are wrong on both counts. First, some Nazis were hanged for relatively minor things, e.g., Keitel mostly for his role in the disappearance or murder of some resistance fighters and political prisoners, not the gassing of millions.
Secondly, the bombings were never primarily about military targets: that was propaganda; enough documents have been declassified by now that we can lay this canard to rest. Instead they were explicitly conceived as a campaign of terror. As a side benefit they were also to curtail industrial output but not by destroying facilities: by killing workers!
While you are correct that the bombing was conceived as a campaign of terror (as was the fire bombing of Tokyo, etc), Arthur Dent’s conclusion holds – it was ineffective.
Thank you, David.
One of the Brexiteer ministers, Steve Baker, wants Sterling to be pegged to gold. In 2011 or 2012, a colleague and I went to the Commons to explain to him why this was not a good idea.
David, pursuant to your post, maybe you – or Yves – can explain why Churchill agreed to Lend-Lease, given what Stalin did to eastern Poland after the 1939 Pact.
“When Chamberlain faced the realities of his diminished stature following the parliamentary vote, he didn’t resign immediately. It was Labour’s attitude – that no coalition government was possible unless Chamberlain resigned – which forced him to go. It was Labour – specifically its Labour conference and its National Executive Committee (in a good story for Corbynistas) meeting in Bournemouth – which made the ultimate decision not to go into coalition with Chamberlain, but to support coalition under a new PM. Thus Labour played a pivotal role in not only bringing Chamberlain down, but aiding Churchill into Downing Street.”
Hmmm. Sounds a bit like Hassan is miffed that the sensible, pragmatic, responsible centrist faction of the Labor Party from that era isn’t getting its due by forcing out that commie Chamberlain in favor of good ol’ reactionary Churchill. Like their heroic current day counterparts, doing their best to oppose the evil dictator Corbyn.
A most interesting fellow is buried at the cemetery in town, and was a friend of Churchill, and in the link, there’s a 1910 photo of him with young Winston on camels in Egypt near the pyramids.
Movies should have been made about Frederick Russell Burnham-as books have.
He seemed to have led 5 lives in the space of one, including being one of 3 survivors in the English version of Little Big Horn, ‘The Shangani Patrol’, along with being chief scout of the British Army & co-founding the Boy Scout movement with Baden-Powell. Not bad for a kid born in Minnesota shortly after it became a state.
Oh yeah, he also struck it rich finding oil, and was one of the first environmentalists, and found the time to do a little bit of discovering the past when he wasn’t busy.
Really enjoyed this book on a insider’s look @ who’s who before during and after WW2: The Harold Nicolson Diaries 1907-1964
You may enjoy also Maisky Diaries – Russian ambassador in Britain (1932-1943) – a fascinating glimpse of history from a genial character.
This topic (Churchill – the man and his legacy) is a very interesting one and, I find, more complex that one would think. As a European, I of course learnt about Churchill in school, but on the continent he does not have this aura of grandeur and success that he is crowned with in British media and American society (I have highlighted those words on purpose and hope that my comments below will make you understand the reason behind it).
A few comments and opinions on the article and its content:
1. I think Churchill was indeed more than just the inspiring, emotional speeches which he delivered very well at the right time. He was the scion of an elite British-American family, a detail which I find very interesting and might explain his desire for (or maybe propensity to?) a “special relationship” between the two countries. From the little I have read on the topic, I have noticed that the late 19th/early 20th century was the time when many American-British marriages/alliances took place. I am not condemning this at all, but I do think this matters more than some would like to admit, as in the minds of their children (most likely those who shaped the post-WWII world) there existed a natural bond between the transatlantic families/societies. It is in this spirit that the post-WWII paradigms were created and subsequent generations raised.
2. It is easy to notice, when you step into any book store in London, that a vast majority of books on history relate to WWII. Not so much actual, non-emotional history, but the pop kind of history books. Churchill and Thatcher are by far the most popular biographies on political figures. When it comes to the Continent, Germany is (surprisingly) still associated with the Nazis and when it comes to Russia you find three main topics: the Romanovs, the Communists and (of course!) Putin’s regime. Sometimes you also read books on how the French invented democracy.
I often wondered why is there so much focus in this country on WWII, the Nazis and Communism (back on the continent these are all dead dogs and people have moved on), but I think the author was able to capture something I have not been able to synthesise so far myself: “The past as costume drama or fighting the ultimate forces of darkness which the Nazis provide, says something telling about Britain today. It points to a chronic failure of progress and absence of hope that the current state of abyss can be collectively changed. It says that the best days of Britain, days when there was purpose and clarity, are behind it, and that there are no current good stories.”
I find this article quite spot-on in identifying Churchill not as a great man, but more like the memory of great days long gone. I do not believe people long for Churchill or someone like him, but for a glorious past. And, again, I do not condemn anyone for wishing something like this.
3. Finally, regarding your comment (that Brits might hold Churchill in as high regard as Americans), I have to say that recently I have been contradicted in this exact belief by a Brit. A well educated lady, who also volunteers as part of the Books Team of a charity shop in a very posh neighbourhood in West London, was recently telling me how she got tired of constantly going through biographies on Churchill. She mentioned that there are many Americans in the neighbourhood where she volunteers and that for them, Churchill and Thatcher seem to be national heroes. I was surprised, as I thought Brits always admired Churchill, at which point she said that this is the case only in certain social groups of society, those engaged in certain professions or those who share specific political beliefs (being English she refrained from being more specific). She said that Brits know how “he (Churchill) was before and how he was after”. So my opinion is that it might well be that it is not British society as a whole which admires Churchill (or what he stands for), but a sub-set of it, whose voice is heard more loudly due to the support of the media.
Very fair comment IMHO, Anke.
This is very insightful Anke. A big issue is that the war in Iraq blew away the post-war pretence that Britain was the fine morally upstanding international actor that is embodied in Churchill and fighting nazi Germany. The glory days of WWII are also about a time when Brits could feel proud of their nation and what it stood for, and it was this moral purpose for which Churchill is famous and which defined the post war British psyche. This explains the permenant fixation with WWII which baffles other Europeans.
Thus brexit is a kind of childish venture, a way to ignore the realities of the world (see also climate change denial, same people) and return to the bosom of….. a comforting time when brits were certain of their moral superiority, higher purpose and quite frankly were generally feeling superior in every way to all other nations.
Seems to put into context this tweet storm that I saw a few days ago on Ireland’s official twitter regarding Chruchill
Speaking as a film geek, the darkest hour kicked major ass and Gary Oldman deserves the Oscar. His assistant deserves a supporting actress nom as well.
That said, i avoided this movie for awhile because of Churchills racism and stuff, but i didnt see any of that really in the movie. Plus the filmmakers go out of their way to show Churchill interacting with the Black Britain on the Underground. That scene blew me away. Im a sucker for those inspirational moments.
I thought the elitists got hammered pretty well in the movie and its kind of a message to the non deplorables to listen to the working class and Oldman reminded me of Corbyn tbh.
The fight for the 21st Century Narrative is at hand!
The first thought in my head WRT this period is the North Atlantic Treaty, when considering across the pond relationships.
I enjoy films and history; I try not to rely on film too much for a truthful depiction of history. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to enjoy something like JFK, which, while entertaining, is an abomination as a work of history. If it comes down to portraying events exactly as they happened, or changing some things to depict a greater truth (at least as he or she sees it), the filmmaker will almost always come down on the latter. It’s an artistic medium, after all.
For those reasons, I was able to enjoy Darkest Hour. It’s difficult to portray the nuances of parliamentary maneuvering in a two-hour film in an entertaining manner. I thought the filmmakers did a decent job of that.
As an aside, I find it interesting that, throughout Gary Oldman’s career, he has portrayed such real-life people as Sid Vicious, Lee Harvey Oswald, Ludwig von Beethoven, and Winston Churchill. That’s quite a range.
Oldman’s quite an actor.
The weakness of this article is the artificial Labour/Tory opposition. Churchill had, after all, changed parties several times and technically was a Tory succeeding a Tory. He was also in the fortunate position after the war of being able to create his own myth, that of the providential savior arriving to rescue the nation. But of course it was Chamberlain and his government that had begun rearmament, otherwise there would have been no Hurricanes and Spitfires to defend Britain in 1940. Chamberlain hoped to contain Hitler through a mix of military strength and political compromise, thus avoiding a war, which, as the film appears to show, terrified everybody at the time with its potential for apocalyptic destruction. Chamberlain was wrong, but not dishonorably so.
All of which, frankly, has little to do with Brexit apart from the terminal disillusion of the British people with what its political class has become.
Yes, I think history has been unncessarly harsh on Chamberlain. He knew well Britain was not in a military position to fight the Germans in the 1930’s, precipitating an early war had the potential to be disastrous, and did his best to buy time. In many ways, Churchill was part of the ‘reckless party’, anxious for a confrontation at the wrong time and place – a consistent thread and feature of Churchills career. He was a good tactician with little strategic vision, and when he did have a strategic vision (e.g. Gallipoli), it was often very wrong.
This is a good article about WC and the recent film
There seems to have been one shining period, preceded and followed by much unnecessary ugliness:
“The ugly side of Churchill’s legacy is, as averred in the opening paragraph, the racism and imperialism that underpinned his worldview. His belief in racial hierarchy was outlined in the testimony he gave to the Peel Commission in 1937, which was established to investigate the 1936 Arab revolt against the influx of European Jewish settlers to Palestine with the connivance of the British.
When asked about the rights of the indigenous people in Palestine, Churchill refused to accept that they had any: “I do not admit, for example, that a great wrong has been done to the Red Indians of America or the Black people of Australia. I do not admit that wrong has been done to these people by the fact that a stronger race, a higher-grade race, a more worldly wise race, to put it in that way, has come in and taken their place.”
Readers interested in this topic will find of interest Crrelli Barnett’s Pride and Fall series, four properly thick volumes, which takes us from the mid-19th century through to the middle of the 20th century. Barnett proposes that the rot in the English system began in the early Victorian era and describes how Churchill was hoodwinked by labor on postwar reconstruction, in ways that made the UK poorer and reconstruction worse.
Antidote: Call the Midwife
I understand that both genealogy and intelligence work both share a common trait and that is a disbelief in ‘coincidences’. So we have all this stuff coming out about Churchill in the lead-up to an actual Brexit when it will be sheer chaos through incompetence. Something to stiffen up the resolve of the plebs? A look-back to the glory days?
Does someone actually encourage films like this to be made in the same way that the Pentagon shapes all manner of movies and TV shows with their influence? To the point that it starts to turn weird. Does anybody else think it a coincidence that in the long run-up to Hillary’s second campaign to become President when she was Secretary of State that a TV show comes out in 2014 called “Madam Secretary” showing a heroic Secretary of State?
Just in passing, I happened to catch a Sharon Stone interview yesterday and if they ever want to make a movie about Hillary with an actress that closely resembles her, I have just the person in mind. I’d pay to watch a movie about the Hillary campaign in ’16 from the inside. How dramatic would the end of that film be?
It would be very interesting for Yves or the author to develop this narrative of Churchill and the decline of Empire into one about what happens to the UK post Brexit.
A particularly interesting question for me having dual citizenship (like apparently half the Australian parliament) is the question of which its relationship to the Anglosphere. When the UK joined the EU in the 1970s in part it said to its offspring “by now and thanks for the fish, you are on your own”. This devastated the New Zealand economy but openned a new era for the three Anglo-celtic offspring whose relationship doesnt seem to get analysed as much as that toward Africa and the oriental parts of Empire – i.e. Canada, NZ and Oz.
To Churchill these Dominions (a very telling word) were hinterlands as disposable when it came down to it as Dundee and probably even more so. This is understandable as at the time their combined populations were small compared to the motherland and they saw themselves to a high degree as UK appendages too.
This is no longer the case of course. The three are much more globally/Pacific/East Asia oriented/linked/dependent. Their combined populations and GDPs equal that of the UK. They are much more ethnically diverse than in 1940 or at least they are similar to the UK except the ethnicity mix is very different.
Conversely though there are still enormously strong ties – e.g. the five eyes military intelligence, family, corporations and the greatest binder of all – a common language which shows up in economic systems, exchange of ideas, science, policy and even style, which is a curious hybrid of American and UK forms but each of which are also very distinctive from the mother and the big brother 1st cousin (some of the right wing US think tanks have pointed to Oz as providing an alternative to the current US mess though such a change is probably not viable even if there was some desire to reform the US system).
So I ask whither this relationship after Brexit? The US seems to be turning in on itself and deemphasizing the Special Relationship. Yves you have lived in Oz as well as in the US and so are in an excellent position to offer insights here.
The economic and financial signs for UK are quite depressing. Without some amazing invention (like radio, TV, computers) I cannot see light at the end of the Brexit tunnel but there is an anomalous thing in military spending.
The government cannot afford the NHS or several welfare services but it can afford a couple of aircraft carriers and half a dozen nuclear submarines. These are not for the defense of the homeland. They are weapons of offense enabling the national leadership to project force globally.
It has been apparent for at least 20 years that British foreign policy is set in Washington DC so it seems British leaders have chosen to take us to war. The people disapproved of Blair’s war – one wonders what they will think of the latest frolic.
I believe that a big part of it is nostalgia, which is tied to what in retrospect appear to be times of relative certainty in comparison to the present reality resulting from incremental Neoliberalism. People of around my age were also brought up on a diet of history which encouraged the belief that we were somehow exceptional, something of course that is obviously not just an English or British trait. It took me quite sometime to recognise the truth in relation to historical figures who were once my childish heroes.
The English Channel is I believe another factor & the fact that since 1066 we have not been invaded or occupied, which from the last threat is where Churchill largely comes in. Perhaps if like Holland & Belgium we had suffered constantly from the ravages of larger powers, we might see things differently, as might the US if their much larger moat is ever significantly breached.
It does annoy me that the working classes get it in the neck from their so called betters for being Nationalistic or Patriotic, after centuries of relying on both to use them as expendable cannon fodder, particularly as it is my belief & experience that given a half decent standard of living & some hope for the future Brexit & Trump would not now exist.
Still…. it is easier to punch down than up.