Was Churchill the Greatest Briton?

This is an old article I wrote about Churchill – which I was reminded of as I was working through old papers.   It still seems relevant today (although it was written in 2003) 

Churchill – The Greatest Briton?

 I have just returned from a great holiday in the Netherlands.  No computer. No TV. No phone (apart from the occasional mobile – yes I am one of those sad individuals who takes their mobile on holiday!). Lots of rest, cycling, worship, sailing, conversation, beer, coffee, cheese and more cheese. And of course, reading. Holiday for me is a great time to relax and read.   This year I greatly enjoyed reading Life of Pi (what a tremendous story and gift for a preacher/apologist!); the latest Harry Potter (do you know any other children’s books that run to over 700 pages?); Metzger’s Tell the Truth (is there a better book on evangelism?) and caught up on a few issues of Prospect (in my view the best serious magazine in the world!).   However, my main reading was Roy Jenkins’s massive biography of Winston Churchill.

41d1deYQIfL._SX328_BO1,204,203,200_The book itself is not the classic that the publisher’s blurb suggests. It is very good on political detail, parliamentary procedure and Churchill’s writings but lacks something in terms of his personal beliefs, relationships and philosophy. However, it is nonetheless a stimulating read and one that has greatly helped me understand some aspects of modern Britain. Although like most Brits I grew up on the myths of the Battle of Britain, Churchill as Saviour of the nation and the whole Dunkirk spirit attitude, I was nonetheless very wary and suspicious of Churchill. But this was largely based on ignorance and limited knowledge. I knew more about Hitler and Stalin than I did about Churchill. And then in one of these ridiculous polls the BBC came up with the idea that Winston Churchill was the Greatest Briton, ever. I thought it was time for me to remedy my ignorance and find out some more about this man. Jenkins book was a revelation. He writes as an admirer of Churchill but it is certainly not hagiographic, and although I would have liked a little more critical analysis, he does have the advantage of telling the story and leaving you to make your own mind up. So was Churchill the greatest Briton?

There is certainly a strong case to be made.   There can be little doubt that Churchill was a key, if not the key player, in preventing Britain from being defeated in the Second World War. He was a great war politician – and felt at home with the politics of war – both in the First and in the Second World wars. His greatest contribution in this respect was to recognize early on the danger that Hitler and the Nazis posed. Although immensely unpopular within Britain he argued for a strong air force and against the policy of appeasement.

Churchill and Europe

He also had an insight into political realities. He loved the French and had a realization that the future lay in a more united Europe. He was also aware that, with the collapse of the British Empire, something he profoundly regretted, it was in Britain’s interests to stick as close as possible to the United States. In the 1930’s he was bitten by the American bug and became greatly attached to the United States where he was as popular as Tony Blair is today.   In encouraging closer European union, combined with an alliance of the English speaking peoples he set in course a confused foreign policy, the fruits of which are still with us.

Does the EU have Nazi or Communist Foundations? -The Great Deception – Part 3

Other Nations

He also did his best to prevent Indian independence famously commenting about Gandhi “It is alarming and nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the East, striding half naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace…to parley on equal terms with the representative of the King-Emperor.”  Perhaps Churchill was not the best of character judges (he spoke highly of Mussolini and considered himself to have a special relationship with Stalin).   And there were areas where he was hopelessly wrong. For example he pleaded with the French to continue fighting on the grounds that the Americans would soon come into the war and help. This was naïve or manipulative in the extreme – Roosevelt had already assured the American public “your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars” (Boston 30th October 1940).

Churchill had an incredible energy and also an ability to motivate and inspire people. In this his oratory was very important.   He could also be brave and courageous. His escape from a Boer prisoner of war camp was ample illustration to that. In addition to this there was a determination to succeed which meant that he never let failure get in the way.

Political Views

His politics were mixed and seemed to be result of his own independent thinking. For example he argued strongly for the nationalization of the railways.   Although a committed anti-Bolshevik and anti-socialist he was certainly not a defender of corporate capitalism. He believed in the authority of the State and was not a fan of what might be termed today ‘limited government’.

Churchill certainly achieved high office – being Prime Minister twice – but we also need to realize that this was not a case of the ‘lad of parts’ making good. Churchill was born into a very privileged position and he used his associations to cultivate a power base and to get on. He, in Jenkins’s words “made full use of his silver spoon to sup with the great and famous”.

Character

If you accept that greatness is determined by character as much as by status and achievements then Churchill does not come out too well. He was an egotist – self confident and self-centered.  Beatrice Webb wrote of him “The impression he makes is an unpleasant one: he drinks too much, talks too much and does no thinking worthy of the name”.  

Another of his major faults was his attitude towards wealth. He was a gambler and he was someone who liked the good things in life. Money was a major motivating factor for him.   In this sense he had little awareness of what real poverty was. He wrote to his mother in 1898 “I sympathise with all your extravagances – even more than you do with mine – it seems just as suicidal to me when you spend £200 on a ball dress as it does to you when I purchase a new polo pony for £100. And yet I feel that you ought to have the dress and I the polo pony. The pinch of the whole matter is that we are damned poor”. Given that £100 would be the equivalent of £10,000 today it is safe to say that Churchill had little awareness of what real poverty was.   In the five years between 1895 and 1900 his tailors bills alone were the modern equivalent of £30,000. In this he was the child of his mother who once declared that she was moving into the Ritz hotel in order to save money! Gambling was a serious weakness for him. In 1906 he records that he spent every night of his holiday gambling until 5 in the morning ending up with a net profit of £260 (the equivalent of more than £12,000 today). It is true that in politics he could make fine speeches about the plight of the poor. It is also true that as Arthur Ponsonby pointed out “his sympathy for the poor was eloquent, his sympathy with the rich was practical”.

Alcohol was a major weakness. Churchill had a fondness for the bottle which made it all the more irritating to him that when he lost his seat in Dundee it was to a Christian Socialist teetotaler.!

Another motivating factor, and part of his egotism, was his desire to be famous. That is one of the reasons that he wrote so much. He thought that the best route to fame and fortune would be through his writing.   This desire to be famous also made him one of the first spin doctors in modern British politics – whether it was his escapades in South Africa, or his account of his early life in politics, Churchill managed to write a great deal about himself and ensure that as far as possible he was in the news, and indeed that he was responsible for the news.   In one infamous incident of spin doctoring he sent a copy of a text of a speech made in Parliament in 1901 to the Morning Post, three weeks before he made the speech, and requested a good report.   I did not realize just how much of a writer Churchill was. Some of his writing is excellent but it is marred by this – that he was always conscious of history and his own part in it.   On several occasions during the Second World War he stated that he did not mind about being judged by the ‘verdict of history’ because he was going to write a large part of it himself.

I also have little doubt that Churchill was a racist – believing the British, or at least the English speaking peoples to be superior to other races. He spoke of his ‘faith in our race and blood’.   Speaking of the Boer war he stated “Peace and happiness can only come to South Africa through the fusion and concord of the Dutch and British races, who must forever live side by side under the supremacy of the British”.

Was Churchill a warmonger?

There is certainly a case to be argued for this. He boasted that in 1898 he had killed ‘several – 3 for certain – 2 doubtful” in the battle of Omdurman in Egypt.   On the announcement of the First World War the Prime Minister Asquith recorded that whereas the whole thing filled him with sadness – Churchill ‘has got on all his war paint’.   For Churchill it was a moment of exhilaration. War gave him a sense of purpose and a means to achieve greatness. Churchill’s attitude to war is perhaps best summed up by his statement that “war is a game to be played with a smiling face”.

Although, as I have already indicated, he was a great war time leader, he also made his mistakes and sometimes gambled with other peoples lifes. No more so than in the Gallipoli escapade in the First World War.   Thousands of ‘Empire’ soldiers lost their lifes in this ill conceived and badly executed campaign. Yet Churchill, as the government minister responsible, refused to accept any blame. Even years afterwards he wrote extensively justifying his own decisions and laying all the blame at the feet of others. Churchill was never wrong.

Having said that about his warmongering spirit, it is only fair to acknowledge that Churchill was strongly opposed to war profiteering – “Why should anybody make a fortune out of the war?” he asked. And demanded that all war profits over £10,000 should be confiscated.   In other respects he was also a man of honour. He was appalled at Stalin’s only half joking suggestion that the German problem would be solved by taking out and shooting 50,000 German engineers and technicians – to which Churchill replied “I would rather be taken out into the garden here and now and be shot myself than sully my own and my country’s honour by such infamy”.

One of the more disturbing aspects of his ‘warmongering spirit’ was his attitude towards weapons of mass destruction. He was furious when, during the First World War, the international Red Cross got the French to support them in an attempt to ban the use of poison gas. Churchill argued that as the wind was largely from the West, the allies could get a better use of poison gas. In the 1920’s he was arguing for the use of mustard gas against the Iraqi’s.   During the Second World War he remained convinced that the way to defeat Germany was to bomb German cities. This was as much about affecting morale as it was about limiting German war production.   In 1944 he ordered that the possibility of using gas and chemical weapons be urgently considered together with the systematic obliteration of a hundred medium sized German towns. This was thankfully never put into action. As it is it remains a stain upon Britain that we were the strongest advocates of fire bombing and bombing of civilians. Churchill recognized this – none of the Luftwaffe were charged at Nuremberg with war crimes for the bombing of civilians.   It was only in March 1945 that Churchill realized that this policy was wrong ( and even then it was not on moral grounds but rather on the grounds that a totally devastated Germany would offer no obstacle to the Russians).   In this latter regard the question of his relationship with Stalin is interesting. Knowing that Stalin was a dictator and being fully aware of his purges he still felt able to declare of him “I walk through this world with greater courage and hope, when I find myself in a relationship of friendship and intimacy with this great man, whose fame has gone out not only over all Russia, but the world.” It is one thing to sup with the devil. Quite another to praise him.

After 1945 Churchill realized that the use of nuclear weapons had changed everything. Using them would mean the destruction of civilization. He believed that the Americans could provide a shield but he was very wary about whether they would just use them in a defensive capacity. There was a fascinating exchange of views between himself and Eisenhower. Churchill believed that a nuclear exchange would mean the end of the human race. Eisenhower thought that there was no distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons and that ‘all weapons in due course become conventional weapons’.

D-Day

Another interesting aspect of the Jenkins book is that he demonstrates that Churchill was not keen on D-Day, thinking that it would very likely be a failure. He believed that the German troops were superior to the British and that an invasion could easily go wrong. In this he was correct – if Hitler had not restricted Rommel and had not prevented the Panzer divisions from entering the early battle there is little doubt that the initial invasion would have been defeated. It is on such decisions that the fortunes of war hang.

The MP

In terms of his politics Churchill was an atrocious MP, having little use for his constituencies other than as a means for him to be in parliament to further his own career. As one of the Dundee MP’s he rarely visited his constituency, other than at election times and had at best a patronizing and at worst a contemptuous attitude to wards the city.   In 1910 he was obviously suffering from an electoral visit to Dundee – he wrote of the Queens hotel – “This hotel is a great trial to me. Yesterday morning I had a half-eaten kipper when a huge maggot crept out and flashed his teeth at me! Today I could find nothing nourishing for lunch but pancakes. Such are the trials which great and good men endure in the service of their country!”. When he was defeated in 1924 he was thankful to leave Scotland and Scotland was quite thankful to be rid of him.

His personal faults were obvious. His qualities less so. Lady Lytton, a close friend made the perceptive comment that “the first time you meet Winston you see all his faults, and the rest of your life you spend in discovering his virtues”.

A Christian?

But in determining greatness as well as taking into account political status, achievements, and character we must ask what his relationship with his Creator was. For all the ‘greatness’ that this world confers will mean nothing on the real day of judgment. What would it profit Churchill to gain the world and lost his soul?   Whilst none of us are ever in a position to ultimately know who belongs to the Lord, the signs re Churchill are not good. Certainly he did not live his life as a Christian believer.

Concerning his relationship with God he was early in life heavily influenced by an anti-religious and quasi philosophical work by Winwood Reade called The Martyrdom of Man.   Although he was a member of the Church of England he was not a believer. He wrote “I could hardly be called a pillar of the Church, I am more in the nature of a buttress, for I support it from the outside”.   There is an interesting comment in a letter written in 1922 when he speaks of “Wee Free fanatics” – speaking of a political opponent who was too purist. I guess Churchill did not attend the Free Church in Dundee at the time! He detested what he called ‘Puritanism’.

It is interesting how Churchill, whilst rejecting the claims of Christ on his own life, was prepared to equate ‘Christian’ with ‘civilised’ or western. In 1938 he described the Nazi power as “that power which spurns Christian ethics”.   He also frequently spoke of the end of ‘Christian civilisation’. How could he do this when he specifically rejected the basic doctrines of Christianity? It was a classic case of someone wanting the fruits of Christianity without the roots.

And yet there is some indication that he had an awareness of something else – something beyond himself or his concept of ‘civilisation’. In his last commons speech on 1st March 1955 he spoke of what would happen to the young “if God wearied of them”. As Jenkins points out “It was striking that a non-believer, at least in any conventional theological sense, should have thought of the most divinely apocalyptic phrase for depicting the terror”. Perhaps towards the end of his life he came to see more of God and less of himself. The evidence suggests otherwise.

Conclusion

Churchill is an important and fascinating historical figure. Whether he is the greatest Briton who ever lived I highly doubt. He does not, in my view, begin to compare with Cromwell, Knox, Chalmers, McCheyne or my mother. I guess that greatness, from a human perspective, is in the eye of the beholder. In the eye of God it is reserved only for those who worship and serve Him.

The Darkest Hour – A Film that Changed my Mind

6 thoughts on “Was Churchill the Greatest Briton?

  1. I enjoyed reading this very much. With Churchill as with Cromwell, Henry VIII and other larger than life historical figures the caricature looms over the man like a gigantic shadow. We already think we know them but they all embody a host of contradictions, and the more we study the less we seem to understand them. For what it’s worth, I didn’t rate the Jenkins book. I thought it was turgid. Martin Gilbert probably is your only man. But I must admit to having been greatly taken with Clive Ponting’s biography, which is a real hatchet job, albeit (and possibly for that reason) very readable. Churchill’s greatest book was his four volume Life and Times of Marlborough, which he wrote in his Wilderness Years, and which was our guide and interpreter for our A Level History specialist subject of the same name. I suspect though that he had a squad of inky-fingered research assistants, as well as others who laid out the raw material of his narrative for him and then he came along and decorated it. But was there a crisis or major issue from the Sudan in 1898 up to 1955 that he wasn’t in the thick of it? the Boer War, Irish Home Rule, the outbreak of WW1, Gallipoli, the General Strike, the Great Crash of 1929, the Palestine Mandate etc. etc.

  2. Deciding who is the greatest ever Briton can be a fun party game.
    All the greatest men and women always seem to have great flaws. In this Churchill was one of the best examples. His life unquestionably demonstrated greatness not least as a wartime prime minister but I think there a several Britons whose contribution to the advancement of mankind and the flourishing of others exceeds Churchill.
    My own particular favourite for the accolade of greatest Briton would be William Wilberforce. His contribution to the movement for the the abolition of slavery alone would set him apart, but his achievements are considerably more than that.
    It could be argued that no individual in our nation’s history had a greater influence in advancing Christ’s Kingdom than he. Add to that his humble and gracious sacrifice to deal with his son’s business debts late in life demonstrated a greatness in his private as well as his public life.

  3. I don’t know about that: surely Harrow, not Eton. What was that about? In looking for it I’ve come across a very interesting (imaginary) conversation Churchill had with his long deceased father in 1947. Look up Churchill’s Dream.

  4. Yes I remember a robust email discussion of the time with yourself when you made the entirely inappropriate comment that Churchill was in hell.

    Did you get the Euroland article by the way?

    1. I think your memory is defective! I don’t think I’ve ever said that about anyone! It’s not my place to judge. Yes I got the Euroland article…thanks…

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