The conservative case against Churchill
Sir Winston Churchill is so often help up as the incarnation of conservatism. The mention of his name is seen as a conservative trump card. The majestic sweep of his uniquely colourful and accomplished life holds unparalleled appeal to romantic right wingers. Whenever the United Kingdom or even the US argues for military action a leader will liken himself to Churchill. The man is regarded as Britain’s national hero. There is a Cambridge college named in his honour. None of the other 75 colleges at either Oxford or Cambridge are named after a prime minister. There is even a Churchill Institute in the United States. A school in Serbia is named Chartwell after Churchill’s country estate. There is a Korean hagwon in New Malden named after Winston S. The village of Churchill in Oxfordshire, incidentally, is where the family took its name from. It is not the village that is named after the family. Any criticism of Churchill however mild or reasoned is met with the retort ‘he won the war!’. This boast is much exaggerated and an example of less than honest self-laudation on the part of Britishers. Yes, Churchill had his manifold virtues and accomplished some splendid things about which more later. Nevertheless, his reputation is much overblown. The importance of his rhetoric and his ebullience in sustaining British morale should not be diminished. Winston Churchill is on a pedestal. Indeed, he is bizarrely on a pedestal for British Conservatives whether they are small ‘c’ or capital ‘C’ conservatives. His place as one of the household gods of international conservatism is also puzzling. Some people behave as though a quotation from Winston can settle any argument. However, the cult of Churchill among conservatives is often based on a misrepresentation of the man’s deeds and words. Winston was in some regards unconservative. His de-canonisation is long overdue. We also need to demythologize him as someone who belongs in the Tory pantheon, as someone who was a military genius or even as a man of moral backbone. It is said that idols have feet of clay. Never was this truer than of Winston.
The wartime leader is so often depicted as the embodiment of the bulldog. His indomitable will throws out the challenge to us all. Be worthy of him. His rotund features grace the obverse of the five pound note. As the man himself said: all babies look like me. Winston is so often described as is he were the knight in shining armour. If he is St George then his foe must be the dragon. W L S Churchill is often treated as if he is more than human. Lesser mortals can but stare awestruck at this colossal figure. It is as though any scrutiny of his actions and words is somehow indecent. Churchill is limned as though he were the deliverer of his nation. This supposed saviour of liberty is a much more flawed figure than his numerous parisans will allow. Any protagonist in political controversies ought to be subject to sceptical inquiry.
Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill was born into a noble family. This scion of the Duke of Marlborough’s house is not exactly a poster boy for equal opportunities. He came from a cadet branch of the family therefore he was not in line to inherit the dukedom. Looking back at his ancestors there were those who fought for obscurantism and absolutism in the English Civil War. The Churchill family had been Cavaliers. Winston was to be cavalier in the broader sense. His most illustrious ancestor Sir John Churchill defended James II against the Duke of Monmouth in 1685. Only three years later Sir John turned his coat and ousted James II. None of this was Winston’s fault. But he took the most intense interest in his forbears and was forever dining out on their manly virtues and deeds of derring do. He was a shameless name dropper! He ought to have recognized that other bearers of the Churchill name were not always honourable or moral.
There are many achievements and talents that Churchill had. He is rightly adulated for his oratorical ability, his many magnificent tomes his formidable agility at political manoeuvring, his fencing prowess, his winning of a declamation prize as well as his numerous wise and just political judgments. This article does not propose to rehash the countless hagiographies of Churchill. Once in a while you ought to read a corrective of the excessively glowing coverage of Churchill. Those who take up cudgels against Churchill are invariably left wingers. Once in a while it is instructive to come across as conservative who will criticize Winston.
None of this criticism of Churchill is supposed to rehabilitate his enemies. His foes particularly in the Third Reich were often wicked beyond belief. Just because his nemeses were ogres it does not automatically follow that he was sagacious or even righteous.
What is a conservative supposed to cherish? Monarchy, religion, freedom of speech, fair trials, personal autonomy, national sovereignty, the free market, property rights, low taxation and capitalism. Churchill did much to undermine these values. What drove him was grandiosity.
At Harrow School Winston did not like being near the last in the alphabetical procession. Therefore, he dropped the first half of his double barrel surname. He went from Spencer-Churchill to Churchill. Never trust a man who cannot even tell the truth about his own name.
As a young officer Churchill served in India. He arrived there totally incurious about India and certain that India had nothing to teach him. This closed minded and chauvinistic attitude is contemptible. From his extensive reading in Hindustan he decided that he was a Liberal. However, as his family connections to Conservative Party were impeccable he chose to be a Tory. His father Lord Randolph Churchill was a Conservative politician and had been Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Incidentally it was whilst in India that the young Winston served in the Malakand Field Force. He battled tribesmen along the North-West Frontier in today’s Pakistan. He wrote an account of the campaign in which he included some exceedingly disobliging comments about Muslims. They are seized on with relish by American Islamophobes to this day.
Winston was a shameless showboating charlatan, opportunist, jingoist and warmonger. No wonder Boris Johnson perceives him as a role model. If you say you are a conservative people will automatically presume that you are a Churchill fan. A true conservative is driven by a wish to act for the common good and uphold conservative nostra. Winston was motivated solely by a wish to ‘climb the greasy pole’ in the words of that other faux Tory Benjamin Disraeli. Unlike Disraeli this man was notable for his unwisdom and emotional incontinence.
Churchill was a rat. Who called him that? Churchill did. This soi-disant rat started out as a Conservative and ‘ratted’ in his own word to the Liberals in 1904 before ‘re-ratting’ (again his own choice of word) to the Conservatives in 1922. It is doubtful that Winston was ever really a Conservative with a capital ‘C’ or even a small ‘c’. That is not to say he was a liberal, libertarian, socialist or anything else. Winston regarded a political party as a vehicle for his own advancement. It was in the blood. His father Lord Randolph Churchill had invented the concept of ‘Tory democracy.’ Asked to define it he said ‘opportunism, mostly’. Quite so. Furthermore, Lord Randolph had taken up the cause of opposing Home Rule for Ireland. ‘Please God it will be the ace and not the two’ he wrote. Randolph Churchill sided with the unionists in Ulster solely because he considered it would redound to his advantage and not because he believed or disbelieved in that cause or any other. In this wise Winston was a chip off the old block. He would say and do anything to speed his way along cursus honorum.
Winston soon regretted joining the Liberals. He reflected that had he only stayed in the Tories a few more years he would have been their leader. His supposed reason for crossing the floor was his horror of tariff reform. Oddly enough this was Conservative policy in the late 1920s when Winston was in the cabinet and went along with that policy.
In the Second South African War 1899-1902 Churchill had fulminated against David Lloyd George. Lloyd George was called a Judas by many Conservatives since he said that the UK was wrong to fight against the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State. Yet only a few years later Winston was bosom buddies with Lloyd George on the Liberal front bench. In Winston’s defence it can be said that he was broadminded. He absolved Lloyd George for the Welsh Wizard’s previous ‘pro-Boer’ attitude.
Winston was a functioning alcoholic. This is not a moral judgment. A righteous person can be a dypsomaniac. Winston never got drunk but then he never got sober either. He steadily boozed through the day. His alcohol dependency makes him a problematic icon for conservatives of a puritanical bent.
As Home Secretary Winston sent troops into Tonypandy. This is an issue that suppurated in Wales for decades. This was the death knell of trades union support for the Liberal Party. But let us clear out of the way the notion that there was any massacre at Tonypandy. Sometimes the accusations levelled against Winston are preposterously false.
Winston was keen to reduce the incarceration rate. He introduced probation. Having been a prisoner in South Africa himself he felt the liveliest sympathy for the incarcerated. He may have been an angel of mercy for felons. But his lenity was hardly conservative. Of course at the moment he mitigated the severity of the penal code this political shape shifter was a Liberal.
At the Sidney Street Siege Churchill went along with a gun. He was keen to take a photo opportunity. He was an exhibitionist. It was a bit like his penchant for showing himself naked to other men.
Winston had opposed Irish Home Rule when he first entered the House of Commons. A few years later he advocated for it. He even addressed a Home Rule rally in Belfast at what is now Casement Park GAA Stadium. A loyalist mob tried to tip his car into the River Lagan. It can be entirely honourable to change your mind. But Winston was only doing so for electoral calculation.
Eugenics is now regarded with horror. Winston was a stalwart advocate thereof as were a great many other people of various points of view. It is an opinion that will disturb pro-Lifers.
In 1914 the Liberal Cabinet had a meeting to discuss the situation in Europe as German troops poised to invade Belgium. Prime Minister H H Asquith and most of the others were convinced that the United Kingdom could stand aloof from the conflagration that was about to engulf Europe. Yet Churchill and a couple of others cajoled Henry Herbert Asquith and the rest of the cabinet into saying that war must be declared on Germany. It speaks volumes about Churchill’s powers of suasion that he was able to win over many much more seasoned politicians against their better judgment.
A war against the mightiest industrial power in Europe was a very serious undertaking indeed. Until 1914 the UK had taken care for a century to fight only against countries over which is had a technological advantage. Even Gemany’s worst foe would acknowledge that Germany was no pushover. This war was always going to be very bloody. Some said that the war would be over by Christmas 1914. Churchill considered himself a military expert. He ought to have known from the American Civil War and the South African War that technology was prolonging war and not foreshortening it. Even if the war had been over by Christmas 1914 by that time at least two million people had been killed. It is true that Churchill did not start that war. The Second Reich could have heeded Britain’s warning and withdrawn from Belgium but did not. The question is whether Belgium’s independence was worth the lives of two million people? Belgium had a population of four million at the time. Many other countries had been invaded and Britain had no declared war. The UK had often been the invader. Other countries including the United Kingdom had broken treaties sometimes. Why was the Treaty of London 1839 sacred when others were not?
As First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill was in charge of the Royal Navy. It was his responsibility to see that the United Kingdom was more than a match for the German Navy. Despite that the German Navy scored some early victories against the Royal Navy at the Battle of Dogger Bank and the Battle of the Coronel. When the Germans started to build more U-boats the UK found much of its merchant fleet sent to Davy Jones’ locker.
The UK started to blockade Germany before Germany did this to the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom declared almost all goods even foodstuffs contraband of war. This was morally questionable to say the least.
The Dardanelles Campaign was a Churchill’s brainchild. The Royal Navy had thrice investigated the possibility of forcing the straits and twice concluded it was impossible. Once they had arrived at the conclusion that it was possible just very difficult and likely to cause very high casualties. Mindlessly optimistic as ever Churchill insisted on going ahead. We all know of the calamitous consequences. But even if the Allies had seized control of the Dardanelles that would probably not have knocked the Ottoman Empire out of the war. It would not have assisted Russia much. Attacking the Ottomans was not knocking away the props from Germany. It was a largely wasted effort.
The death toll caused many to blanche. Even stout -hearted soldiers asked if there was not a better way forward? Should they negotiate? Some people wanted to put out peace feelers to the Central Powers. Churchill was having none of it. As in South Africa his attitude had been to fight to the finish.
Protracting the war led to more deaths. It led to the October Revolution and the advent of communism which was the bugbear of the rest of Churchill’s life. If peace had been negotiated in 1916 there would have been not Stalin, no Hitler, no Second World War and no Cold War.
Churchill was not prime minister in the First World War. Therefore, he is not alone in carrying the blame for mutton headed decisions.
In 1920 the Royal Irish Constabulary Special Reserve war formed. The RIC Special Reserved was tasked with fighting the IRA. Churchill was a prime mover behind this. This unit did not always behave inculpably.
During the first Troubled Times in Ireland 1919-21 Churchill denounced the IRA especially one of its head honchoes Michael Collins. By December 1921 Churchill literally embraced Collins. When Collins was killed by the IRA he received a glowing elegy from Churchill ‘the gallant leader of a valiant race.’ Winston performed a volte-face on Collins as on so many other people.
In 1918 the Russian Civil War broke out. A few British soldiers were dispatched to help the White side and to recover or destroy the tonnes of arms that the UK had shipped there to help Russia fight the Germans. London inquired of the British officers in Russia whether intervention could enable the Whites to defeat the Reds in Russia. The message came back that the war was winnable for the Whites but only if there was massive intervention. The UK must either send hundreds of thousands of troops or none at all. Churchill was one of those who decided on half measures. Several thousand troops were sent. It was enough to infuriate the Bolsheviks but not to change the outcome of the war. It was the worst of both worlds. Russo-British relations were soured for generations due to this. Who were the White Russians whom Winston proposed to assist? Some were reactionaries who wished to restore the tsar to despotic and untrammeled power. There were others who were far left. The Social Revolutionaries (SRs) were these far leftists who were not revolutionaries in name only. They had often essayed to assassinate the tsar. Neither pole of politics should have been supported by the United Kingdom. Had the Whites won the war there most assuredly would have been a second conflict between the different factions among the Whites.
Churchill railed against Bolshevism as ‘animalism’ and said that the communist state ‘should be strangled in its cradle’. You might agree with these sentiments but intervening in a foreign civil war is hardly conservative.
Winston was a cabinet minister in 1917 when the Balfour Declaration was issued. He was an a philosemite and that is laudable. His Zionism does not endear his memory to Palestinians who were dispossessed as a result of Winston’s belief that the did not deserve to live in their homeland.
As Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1920s he decided to go back on the gold standard. Many experts urged him to do so. It turned out to be a disaster. But as Churchill was chancellor the responsibility is his. He had the right to reject the advice. His decision had to be reversed a few years later. The gold standard caused unemployment to remain obstinately high.
In 1919 the Glasgow area as convulsed by strikes. The Red Clyde was the seat of trades union agitation. Winston ordered tanks onto the streets. Socialists regarded this as a gross abuse of state power in a bid to cow the labour movement. People campaigning for a living wage were being overawed by military might. Perhaps it was a conservative thing to do? Or was it denying people their liberty? Everyone has the right to demonstrate about public grievances.
In January of the year of grace some nineteen hundreds and nineteen Winston was party to decision to suspend Glasgow City Corporation. This was an unjustified intrusion on the city’s autonomy. Conservatives are supposed to value local government and subsidiarity. Whatever happened to keeping government close to the people. The second largest British city was placed under the control of the army. The incident is not triviality to be brushed aside with the plea of ‘necessity’. This ought to perturb even the most blinkered admirer of Spencer-Churchill. It would be deeply wrong to ignore the tanks on George Square. People were stopped and questioned by soldiers as they went about their lawful and quotidian business. Nobody was killed. A plea in mitigation was that this was only 18 months after the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. The Bolsheviks openly preached revolt in all capitalist lands. British Bolshevists avowed their intention to bring about a Marxian proletarian paradise in the British Islands.
In 1926 Churchill was heavily involved in defeating the National Strike. He set up a newspaper called the British Gazette to help this objective. In this respect at least he served a cause that all Conservatives and even most Liberals approved of.
By the early 1930s Winston was on the backbenches. He was cantankerous and reactionary. Many believed that his best days were behind him and he would never get near the backbenches again. He took up the cause of the Tory diehards. As Colonial Secretary in the early 1920s Winston had been party to the decision to allow political reform in India. By the 1930s Winston was adamantine in his opposition to further political development in India. His backward-looking attitude lost him a lot of credibility. This one time Liberal had embraced whalebone corseted conservatism.
People often hold a candle for Churchill due to his opposition to appeasement. Appeasement of whom? He was an ardent appeaser of Italian fascism. He went further. Churchill traveled to Italy in the 1920s and addressed a fascist rally. He revealed that if he were an Italian he would have been amongst the fascisti. Winston also lauded Mussolini as a great lawgiver. In fairness to Winston at that time Mussolini was nothing like as bad as he became later. Mussolini was still fairly popular in Italy and abroad. Many people considered communism to be the real threat. The cruel oppression in the USSR made the misdeeds of Mussolini pale into insignificance by way of comparison.
In 1935 Italy invaded Abyssinia. The League of Nations could have played a crucial role in preventing this. Roy Jenkins, a highly sympathetic biographer of Churchill, wrote that Winston regarded the League as ‘a namby pamby organisation’. Winston excoriated the Italians for the annexation of Abyssinia. But this was inconsistent with his wish to build a coalition against Nazism.
If the United Kingdom really wanted to prevent German expansionism then it would pay to keep Italy sweet. Until the late 1930s there was some chance that Italy would be on the side of France and the UK against Germany. Even if Italy were not a co-belligerent of theirs in a future war then the Italians could at least be kept neutral.
The British Armed Forces were much weaker in the early 1930s than they had been in 1914. Why was that? Churchill was one of those who in 1919 had pushed through the 10 year rule. This was an assumption that the United Kingdom would fight a major war in the next ten years. This allowed for severe austerity in military spending. Such retrenchment was good with the public finances. But such parsimony meant that the UK’s armed forces were feeble compared to those of Germany or the USSR by the mid-1930s.
We often hear that Winston was a day one abominator of Adolf Hitler. In 1932 Churchill was in Germany researching a biography of his ancestor the first Duke of Marlborough. Winston arranged to have luncheon with the leader of the National Socialists. Hitler had to cancel at the last minute so the two never met. Asking to have lunch with Hitler suggests that Churchill’s principled opposition to Nazism did not start as early as we are led to believe. It is true that in politics people have to deal with those they detest. But Hitler was an opposition politician at the time and Churchill was a backbencher at the time. Moreover, in 1937 Churchill published an article praising Hitler.
People often write about how oppressive the Third Reich was. It was a very ugly regime and had dismantled German democracy within 18 months of the Nazi Party becoming the government. But in the 1930s the USSR was even more cruelly oppressive than the Third Reich. Millions of people had been killed in the USSR through execution, slave labour in the gulag and through deliberately created famines. This is not what aboutery. Nazi crimes are not made acceptable because of communist crimes and vice versa. Two wrongs do not make a right. The German Government was not the most villainous in Europe at the time. The Third Reich certainly was brutal but the brutality of the USSR towards its own people was of a different order of magnitude. There was moral equivalency between the two regimes. Why did the UK have to defend dictatorial Poland against Germany but not against the USSR? Why did the UK not have to defend democratic states such as Lativa, Lithuania, Estonia, Finland or Romania against the USSR?
Winston never saw a war he did not like. Appeasers are execrated now. But could it not be that they were actuated by humanitarian motives? Most of them were men who had fought gallantly in the First World War. These men can hardly be called cowards. They had no wish to see a repeat performance of such butchery.
Who was Britain’s foremost appeaser in the 1930s? It was Edward VIII who was later known as the Duke of Windsor. The Duke of Windsor was a close friend of Churchill’s. Indeed, Churchill was the only politician whom the duke addressed by his Christian name. Winston was an ardent royalist and crashing snob. He would forgive royals well nigh all. In 1936 Winston was one of the only people in the establishment who believe that not only Edward VIII should remain king but that Wallis Simpson should be allowed to become queen. This was despite it being well known among politicians that the king was deeply sympathetic to Nazism and was leaking secrets to Joachim Ribbentrop. Imagine if Edward VIII had remained as king. What would have happened in 1939? He might have refused to declare war. There would have been a constitutional crisis.
In the 1930s divorce was unusual – it was a lengthy, expensive and highly contentious process. Traditionalists looked askance at the thought of a twice divorced woman with two living ex-husbands marrying the king. To countenance such a move and even allow this woman to be granted the title queen was as unconservative as can be. Churchill’s attitude to Mrs Simpson could be called humane, broadminded, progressive and understanding. But by the standards of the 1930s it was surely not conservative.
When the former Edward VIII undermined the war effort Churchill did nothing about it. Anyone else would have been court martialed for a fraction of what the duke did.
In the late 1930s Churchill was deeply unpopular for demanding a war against Germany. A war against the Third Reich would lead to at least several million deaths. His urge to fight seemed to be without giving a moment’s thought to the British Empire’s ability to win the war. There was no popular stomach for the fight. This heartfelt desire for peace was morally right. The King and Country debate in 1933 and the Peace Pledge referendum organized by the League of Nations Union demonstrated beyond the realm of doubt the widespread desire to remain at peace. Nonetheless Winston persisted in calling for war. You could call him mettlesome or you could call him obstinate.
Winston wanted to maintain British paramountcy. Yet he also wanted to fight against a power which had no desire to challenge British paramountcy. Winston was warned that fighting against the Third Reich would be the deathblow of the British Empire even if the UK won. So it proved. The war spelt finis to the very notion of Britain as a superpower.
We all know that the UK went to war in 1939 ostensibly to save Poland. What did Churchill agree about Poland in 1945? It was not to return Poland to its 1939 borders.
Should Britain have gone to war at all? The UK owed Poland nothing. Few Britons bore the Poles any ill will. But why should the United Kingdom stick its neck out for Poland?
The Poles did not request any guarantee of military assistance. The UK offered that unsolicited promise without the Poles offering anything in return. This made Warsaw more stiff-necked in its parley with Berlin in the middle months of 1939.
The Third Reich wanted a 400 metre wide road and rail corridor between the main part of Germany and East Prussia. The Poles were entirely within their rights to refuse. But this refusal was one of the reasons by the Third Reich declared war. Let it be crystal clear that the Third Reich was to blame and not the Polish Republic for starting the war. Berlin was the aggressor and faked an attack on Germany by ‘Poles’ (in fact German concentration camp prisoners dressed in Polish Army uniform) to provide causus belli. The Third Reich also wanted Gdansk which they called Danzig. This city was almost 90% ethnically Germa n. It was supposed to be run by the League of Nations but Poland was ruling it. Nazism was despicable. That does not prove that every single claim that the Nazis made was unfair.
If the United Kingdom really wished to help the Poles prior to the declaration of war then the British Army could have dispatched troops to Poland. This would have demonstrated to Germany that the United Kingdom was sincere in its desire to help Poland defend herself. But Hitler simply assumed that the British guarantee to fight alongside Poland was simply hot air. The British were bluffing, so the German leadership thought, just as the Brits had bluffed several times in the 1930s.
We are often told that the UK had a moral obligation to fight against Nazism. Oddly almost no other country had such a moral obligation. Sweden, Switzerland, Portugal, Turkey and other countries remained neutral throughout the war. Plenty countries were neutral until they were attacked. Why is it that the French and British were the only ones to be under such an obligation? Much sanctimonious and sententious twaddle is to be found in pro-Churchill discourse.
I hear you say: the United Kingdom had to go to war because of the Holocaust. No country went to war because of the Holocaust. It was not even planned until the Wannsee Conference of 1942. It is true that prior to 1942 at least several thousand Jewish people had already been murdered by the Third Reich. It goes without saying that this is evil on a grand scale. There have been few wars in which atrocities have been absent. The Third Reich was not averagely bad in this respect but egregiously horrific. However, none of that was apparent in 1939. No one predicted that the Third Reich would try to annihilate the Jewish community. One-third of the German Jewish community was still left in Germany in 1939. If they believed that staying in their homeland was a death sentence then they would have left. The Third Reich practised racial discrimination at the time which is of course despicable. Many other countries also enforced racist laws at the time such as South Africa, Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) and many states of the USA. Nazi Germany was certainly bad on racial issues but not uniquely so. This article does not try to whitewash the satantic wickedry of the Third Reich. Murderous it certainly was. Let us get one thing clear. War was not declared to stop the Holocaust. Nor did it actually stop it once the Nazis began their hideous campaign of genocide against Jews, Gypsies, gays, Russians, Ukrainians, Poles, communists, Freemasons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and so forth. There were barbarities underway in the Third Reich even before the war such as Program T4: the murder of the mentally handicapped and the physically disabled. But that was done surreptitiously. The UK did not know about it at the time and no one cited it as a reason to go to war.
The war made the Holocaust easier to hide. It made Germany less susceptible to being sent to moral Coventry. There are many instances of genocides since 1945. But we are often told it would be wrong to intervene in Iraq to save the Kurds, wrong to intervene in Kosovo, wrong to intervene in Rwanda and so on. Paleo-conservatives tend to favour continuity and to believe in staying out of foreign quarrels. There was no British national interest at stake in Poland. As Lord Curzon had once said that the Polish border was not worth the bones of a British grenadier. Poland was like Czechoslovakia – a far away country of which we know little. The United Kingdom had not felt compelled to step in during the Chaco War when Bolivia fought Paraguay. Why should London feel the obligation to take sides in a dispute about a city in Poland that most Britons could not even spell?
There is a bogus notion abroad that the UK fought for democracy. Nazism was certainly anti-democratic. But when the did the Nazis ever give any indication that they had any wish to alter the British political system? The UK had undemocratic allies. The colonies were not run in a democratic fashion.
The British decision to declare war was folly of the first magnitude. London knew it was ill-equipped to defeat the Third Reich even with France as a British ally. For the first few months the French and British did almost nothing to fight against Germany. They could have mounted an offensive against western Germany. They could have bombed the Third Reich. But they did neither. This Phoney War did not help the Poles. The French called it le drole de guerre – the joke war. The German quipped that the Western allies were fighting a sitz krieg.
Read Churchill and the Unnecessary War by Pat Buchanan. This trenchant analysis demolishes Churchill’s case for war. As Winston himself said the Second World War was ‘the unnecessary war’. Pat Buchanan’s views on a number of issues are toxic. He asperses non-white ethnicities. But he can still be spot on with regard to Churchill.
The German Occupation of Poland was monstrous. Millions of Poles both Jewish and Gentile were killed. But no one in 1939 predicted anything like the scale of the violence.
Even if you think that the Allied cause was moral in 1939 it was not viable. The UK had cut back it military severely in the 1920s and 1930s. Rearmament in 1938 had barely brought the UK and France together up to the German level of armament. Parsimony meant that British military technology lagged behind German technology in some respects.
We know that the Allies won in the end. But that is because of Soviet blood and American treasure. Were it not for them there is no way the British Empire could have defeated the Third Reich. There was no reason to believe in 1939 that the USSR or the USA would ever join the Allied side. The USSR had made an accommodation with the Third Reich and there was no reason to believe that the Germans would break their 10 year non-aggression pact. In the United States neutrality was almost universally approved of. The America First Committee lobbied zealously for staying out of the war and not even selling arms to the UK. President Roosevelt received hundreds of letters a week demanding that the US stay out of the war. The notion that the United Kingdom won the war is absurdly self-congratulatory.
SECOND WORLD WAR
At the outbreak of the Second World War a message was sent to all ships of the Royal Navy ‘Winston is back’. Churchill was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. This was the same position he held in 1914. One of the mistakes he made in 1939 was not to prioritise anti-submarine warfare. The Third Reich concentrated on U boat warfare rather than fighting with surface vessels.
Churchill was one of those who advocated for intervention in Norway in April 1940. He even called for the invasion of what was then a neutral country. The whole principle on which the Allied cause was predicated was upholding national sovereignty. How on earth could they Allies commit such unwarranted aggression? In fact the Third Reich beat them to it and invaded Norway first. The Royal Navy did not cover itself in glory off the coast of Norway. It did at least sink a few German capital ships. Who was in charge of the Senior Service? It was one W.S. Churchill. Yet he did not carry the can for this underperformance.
There were other times that the United Kingdom invaded neutral lands during the Second World War. These included Iceland and Iran. You might say that the situation called for force majeure. Winston even considered invading Southern Ireland.
In May 1940 the Norway Debates took place in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister was Neville Chamberlain. He was barracked for the dismal performance of the British Army in Norway. It appeared that Chamberlain had lost the confidence of the house. If the sharp toothed Brummy was to go then who was to replace him? Some favoured the Earl of Halifax. Lord Halifax was a former Viceroy of India and a Fellow of All Souls College Oxford. He had impeccable establishment credentials and was a conservative in the fullest sense. He was a safe pair of hands – despite only have one hand! Most Tories favoured the earl. But a minority of Tories and most of the Labour Party favoured Winston for reach pugnacity. But in the end the Holy Fox was not called upon to become Prime Minister.
On 10 May 1940 Churchill was invited by the king to kiss hands. Churchill was appointed first lord of the treasury. When Winston became prime minister the Battle of France was beginning. He must carry the can for the British Expeditionary’s Force disastrous performance in that fight. When the BEF had to flee then Churchill wanted to dispatch the entire Royal Air Force to France. Had he done so then it might have been curtains for the RAF.
To have even an outside chance at winning the war the United Kingdom was obliged to invoke the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA). This meant a severe abridgement of civil liberty. The freedom of the press was curtailed. Habeas corpus was suspended. Rationing was introduced. Some property was sequestrated. All these are things that are abhorrent to a conservative. A conservative would only jettison these principles temporarily in extremis. None of these measures would have been necessary had it not been for this discretionary war.
In July 1940 Churchill insisted that an ultimatum be delivered to the French Fleet at Mers-el-Kebir. This is a port on the coast of Algeria. The French Navy was given a couple of hours to either come over to the Allied side, agree to be interned in the United States or to scuttle their vessels. When the French admiral did not respond by the deadline the Royal Navy launched an unprovoked attack on the French. Over 1300 French sailors were killed. Not a single British seaman was killed. From a British perspective it was a resounding military success. Victory is not an apt word for this. Many around the world regarded it as a dastardly attack on what was then a neutral country. Winston argued that the French Fleet could have been commandeered by the Kriegsmarine and represented a mortal peril to the United Kingdom. Yet his order was of dubious morality and legality. It made France hostile when it might have been neutral. It put the Free French in an invidious position. Churchill liked to think of himself of being like Nelson at Copenhagen when he had attacked the Danish Fleet because this neutral nation might join Britain’s nemesis.
In 1941 Winston made two public offers to the Irish Government to hand over Northern Ireland. He sent a message to the Taoiseach of Southern Ireland ‘A nation once again. Now or never’. Eamonn de Valera turned him down flat. Winston was willing to expel Northern Ireland from the UK and give it to the Irish State that the great majority of people in Northern Ireland did not want to join. You might disagree with the unionist viewpoint but surely anyone can see it was Winston betraying the unionists. A British Conservative believes in the Union! The party is called the Conservative and Unionist Party. The Unionists in Northern Ireland trusted him and he wanted to stab them in the back. At the outbreak of the war the Prime Minister of Northern Ireland pledged that his devolved administration would do everything it could for the war effort. ‘We are the King’s men’ said Viscount Craigavon. Yet Churchill was willing to break up the UK and hand the six counties over to a republican in the shape of de Valera. De Valera was right not to trust Winston.
The British Armed Forces were not even very successful during the war. Winston lamented that until El Alamein in November 1942 there were no British victories of note. ‘I can’t get the victories’ he despaired. Even when the UK won it was only because there were troops from India, Australia, New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Canada, Uganda, Jamaica and so forth on the side of the empire. There is a pernicious myth that Britain fought ‘alone’ for even part of the war. The Americans did much of the fighting. 75% of the German casualties were on the Eastern Front. The Soviets did the great bulk of the fighting. This awkward fact is conveniently overlooked in self-serving British narratives of the world war. Such self-flattery is the core of the dishonest pro-Churchill propaganda.
Churchill had a very good idea that the Katyn Massacre was carried out by the NKVD. He chose to overlook this for reasons of state.
Winston signed away Polish land to the Soviet Union without consulting a single Pole. This is a cause of much resentment in Poland to this day. The Soviets were raising this in the autumn of 1941. Why did Winston even entertain the idea then? The USSR was fighting for its life and hardly needed an incentive to resist the Third Reich.
When French Algeria was seized by the Allies they agreed that the Vichy Admiral Darlan could remain on as governor. So much for principled anti-fascism. Once Darlan turned his coat all was forgiven. It is believed that Winston had a back channel to Mussolini about striking a similar deal. In the end this did not bear fruit. Winston was very eager that Mussolini be summarily executed upon capture. Dead men tell no tales!
Winston was an unreconstructed imperialist. He never accepted that you could have an empire or you could have a major war. You could not have both. Even if the United Kingdom won the war (a very big if in the 1930s) then the UK would emerge hugely enfeebled. Churchill said in 1942 ‘I did not become the king’s first minister to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.’ But that is what he did. He was obliged to send the Labour MP Stafford Cripps to India to treat with Congress. The Cripps Mission resulted in the United Kingdom acknowledging that India would be granted independence as soon as practicable after the war. India was the keystone of the British Empire. Once India had become independent it was only a matter of time before the others did. You might think that the empire was wicked and that independence for the colonies was splendid. But Churchill did not. He failed in his self-appointed mission. Everyone told him that him that if Britain went to war then the empire would end and it did.
Bengal suffered a horrific famine from 1942 onward. Churchill was kept informed of the situation. Food could have been sent to India to save people. Not all the deaths could have been prevented but surely some lives could have been saved. Winston did not lift a finger to save these people. This issue causes huge fury and pain in India to this day.
In the run up to D Day Churchill had a bright idea. Why not use England’s oldest ally Portugal? Portugal was a neutral country run by a conservative dictator Salazar. British troops would have to land in Portugal and probably invade it. Then the British would have to fight their way across Spain which is the most mountainous country in Europe and then fight their way across France. It was a moronic plan. A huge amount of staff time was wasted on contingency planning for this hare-brained and self-indulgent scheme.
Ever the glory boy Churchill wanted to land on D Day. General Eisenhower was in charge of this operation. The American asked Churchill not to go. Churchill replied that although Eisenhower was in command he had no right to dictate the complement of one of His Majesty’s ships. King George VI had to order Churchill not to go.
well established family by 1874
preceded by illustrious ancestors
johnny come lately to national prominence
cringe before more established aristocrats
line of lace ruffed ancestors in 16th century involved in euro wars.
vicissitudes of history
Towards the end of the war Churchill visited Moscow. There he signed what he termed ‘the naughty document’. In the said document he wrote the percentages of influence in various eastern European countries to be accorded to the USSR and to the West. Poland and Romania for example were to have mostly Soviet influence. Greece was 90% western. Whatever happened to respect for national sovereignty? How was this so different from the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939 when Ribbentrop and Molotov carved up eastern Europe?
When the Germans withdrew from Greece what did Churchill do? He was keen to thwart the communists. Therefore, Winston ordered that Greek prisoners of war who had formerly backed Germany be rearmed.
The Allies demanded unconditional surrender from the Axis countries. This extended the war and cost more lives. Again, Winston is not the only guilty party.
widely established practice to seek terms
USSR suspected the UK would leave them in the lurch
uk DID little fighting
The area bombing of German cities is controversial at best. He said it was to induce terror. He considered using chemical weapons.
After the war of the order of ten million German civilians were driven out of eastern Europe. Up to two million of them died in the process. Churchill agreed to the explusion of these people. Was that ethical or humane? The Poles and Soviets had their reasons for wanting to do this. The British did not.
Winston agreed to White Russians being handed over to the Soviet Union. Some of them had left Russia during the Russian Civil War 1917-22. Others were born abroad to Russian parents. Those born abroad had never been Soviet citizens. Nonetheless they were handed to the tender mercies of Stalin.
During the war there was no principled advocacy of democratic principles by Churchill. Instead when Churchill spoke about the USSR he did so only in glowing terms. No ethical or legal principle was vindicated by the war. Winston claimed to have some ethical undergirding to his foreign policy. Traditionally the Tories were more guided by the furtherance of national interest. It was Liberals from Gladstone onwards who resorted to operatics on foreign policy and claimed to be galvanised by ethical considerations.
On VE Day Winston made a broadcast in which he castigated Eire for not declaring war on the Axis countries. Eamon de Valera was the Taoiseach (PM) of Southern Ireland at the time. The Irish Head of Government riposted with a broadcast a few days later. His speech was delivered in soft and restrained cadences. In a closely argued statement de Valera noted that Winston had said that if Britain’s interest was at stake then all principles of law and morality could be cast aside. It was claiming that might was right. Such a Machiavellian principle could be invoked by the United Kingdom’s foes also. De Valera is not my favourite Irish politician. But he deserves plaudits for keeping Eire out of the Second World War as public opinion insisted he did. The Taoiseach at least set out a policy and adhered to it. Winston was suggesting violating the very principle which was the whole moral basis for the war.
AFTER THE WAR
Churchill ought to have bowed out at the 1945 election as his wife Clementine urged him. Instead he led his party to a heavy defeat. That would still have been a moment to pass the torch to a new generation. The Labour Party did not bother or perhaps did not dare field a candidate against Churchill in his constituency in 1945. Only an eccentric communist stood against the prime minister. This local kook notched up 27% of the vote. Mr Hancock was the challenger’s name: he did not stand under the banner of the Communist Party of Great Britain but that was his alliance. This was by far the best result a Communist Party of Great Britain candidate achieved in England.
After the war Churchill was not as adulated as you might imagine. He was heckled at rallies. The apotheosis of Churchill was not complete until after his death in 1965.
Winston’s election broadcast in 1945 carried the outrageous imprecation that Labour would introduce ‘Gestapo’ into the United Kingdom. It was an accusation so dishonourable and flagrantly mendacious that it hugely backfired on the Tory Party. This libel against Clement Attlee, the Deputy Prime Minister, typified the freewheeling attitude that Winston had to truth and common decency.
The Conservatives lost partly because of Churchill’s jaded leadership. He was fixated with military matters and foreign affairs. He found bread and butter issues tedious. Winston was totally out of sympathy with the idea of establishing the National Health Service or nationalizing any industries. In regard to that last point he was at least conservative. What had he ever achieved in domestic politics? He brought in tea breaks and labour exchanges. These are praiseworthy but not particularly conservative.
Churchill was unwilling to face facts. Britain’s status after 1945 was living in much diminished circumstances. Roosevelt wrote to Stalin in 1943 ‘after this war England will be financially through for a long time.’ FDR was absolutely correct. Winston maintained fantasies of imperial might and splendour. As a romantic right winger he was very susceptible to delusions of grandeur. He claimed that there were the Big Three: the USA, the Soviet Union and the British Empire. The empire was fading fast. The United Kingdom itself had lost a quarter of its national wealth. This was the new dispensation. Winston himself had done more than anyone else to bring it about. The United Kingdom ended up as a supplicant to Wall Street.
Winston fulminated about Indian independence. But even then at least the old curmudgeon agreed not to have Tory peers delay the India Bill in the House of Lords.
Winston defined appeasement as ‘feeding the crocodile in the hope that it will eat you last.’ It is deeply unfashionable to say it but appeasement sometimes works. War sometimes works. It would be wrongheaded to oppose appeasement in principle. A prettier word for appeasement is compromise. Did Winston ever appease other governments? You bet your life he did. He was party to Lausanne when the Entente caved into the Turks over the Chanak Crisis. He ceded eastern Poland to Stalin. At Yalta he made many concessions to the Soviet Union. In the mid 1950s he was grandstanding on the world stage. As the only survivor of the Big Three (Roosevelt and Stalin both having died by 1953) Winston assumed that this accorded him special status when it came to thrashing out an agreement between NATO and the Soviet Bloc. His big idea for 1953 was a conference whereat he could reach a final settlement of the differences between the USSR and the West. That is appeasement! Oddly he was not demanding immediate war against a ghastly tyranny. It was right that he had come to his senses and not demanded a Third World War. It had taken two world wars for him to learn his lesson.
In 1951 the Conservatives won more seats than the Labour Party. In truth Labour won more votes. But the first past the post system favoured the Tories on that occasion. Winston was back at Number 10 Downing Street. He was in failing health. Soon he was regularly incapable of discharging his prime ministerial functions. He was afflicted by a stroke. His son in law forged Winston’s signature on official documents. A patriot would have recognized that duty is about the country and not about personal vanity. It was high time for him to retire graciously. Instead he carried on as PM until 1955.
In 1952 an insurrection erupted in Kenya. The British Army – both black and white – fought against the Mau Mau insurgents. The conduct of the Crown Forces was sometimes bad and occasionally unspeakable. Such villainy was known to Churchill who did not suffer qualms of conscience. Winston is not the moral titan that he cracked up to be.
a convocation of savages?
Winston was fairly popular as prime minister because relentless evangelizing for the Churchillian cause had already begun in the press, in the cinema and even in educational textbooks. Moreover, Winston was lucky in his timing. He inherited the post war boom. By 1951 the UK was starting to be able to ease off rationing. The Tories persisted with Labour policies and mass unemployment and poverty were avoided.
Once Winston retired as pm he remained a back seat driver. He privately urged Sir Anthony Eden to make a clandestine agreement with the French and Israelis at Sevres to attack Egypt in 1956. The result was a diplomatic debacle. It very much set the cat among the pigeons. The United Kingdom has never been as unpopular as it was in 1956. Besides the UK’s confederates in the Suez caper only three countries voted the UK’s way in the United Nations. These were South Africa, Belgium and Australia.
If maintaining the empire was Churchill’s life work he did a remarkably poor job of it. Granting India independence was not his doing. But in the 1950s he could have set his face against further concessions to nationalist sentiments in other colonies. Under Churchill Malaya began to take steps towards independence. Malaysian independence followed in 1957 shortly after Sir Winston stepped down as PM.
As Winston said ‘history shall be kind to me as I intend to write it.’ His multivolume History of the Second World War was written with archival sources that were only available to him. It was years before anyone else saw these documents. He was fixated with his legacy as well as that of his ancestors. That is why he spent so much time composing hagiographies of his father and the first Duke of Marlborough. The cult of Churchill is pernicious.
Winston had many qualities including leonine courage. He had rhetorical virtuosity, literary gifts and superhuman energy. Of judgement he was bereft. Winston was rightly regarded as a hot head and prone to a ludicrous degree of wishful thinking. He is not the archetype of a successful prime minister. So much of the time he was a poseur and a narcissist. His curious confection for millinery should tell us that. He was not actuated by a disinterested desire to serve the public weal. What made him tick was vanity and an eye on posterity. This explains his obsession with his posthumous reputation. He put the story about that he had turned down the offer of the title Duke of London. Admittedly his grave is as simple as can be. Is that not false modesty?
Even in death Winston was not as venerated as one might now imagine. It is true that the cranes along the Thames dipped in tribute as the MV Havengore launch bearing Winston’s body passed by. But the men operating the cranes only did so because they were paid to do this for his funeral which was on a Saturday. If these men really admired Sir Winston then they would have performed this duty pro bono.
Scarcely a year goes by without a docudrama or even film about Winston. These are uniformly flattering of Winston. It would be far more intriguing, honest and brave to produce a film about this man that emphasized his debilities, his injudicious decisions and even his immorality. These are not just heroic flaws. The man was deeply flawed. Winston sometimes espoused conservative values. Deep down did he ever believe them? That is dubious. No conservative should have hold him up as the incarnation of their values.