by Will Lloyd
Wednesday, 18
May 2022
Review
10:30

Winston Churchill needs better defenders

A new book has sparked a new round of inane attacks and defences
by Will Lloyd
He deserves better from both sides. Credit: Getty

Manchester, 1906. “Fancy,” said Winston Churchill, born in the largest stately home in England, when canvassing with a friend as he considered an especially drab row of houses, “living in one of those streets, never seeing anything beautiful, never eating anything savoury — never saying anything clever!” 

Never saying anything clever is the motto of the Churchill industry today. It should be stamped on all the participants’ heads. Last week Tariq Ali released Winston Churchill: His Life, His Crimes. You have already read it. Older readers may have read it the first time in 1970, when Robert Rhodes James published his comprehensive Churchill: A Study in Failure

An older reader, one who lived through the events of Churchill’s life, would have known what these books and many others tell us: Churchill was a bounder, a serial failure, terrible at small talk, deluded, depressive, drunken, deficient in judgement, and systematically racist enough to be compared by his Secretary of State for India to Adolf Hitler

But — put on some Elgar! — he must be defended. It’s just a shame that the swords flying out of scabbards are so rusty. Churchill was a “towering figure”, said a panto-incredulous Piers Morgan on his unloved show a few days ago, “coming under increasing attack from the woke brigade.” 

It’s amusing to think of pickled-undergraduate Left-wing academics as being part of a “brigade”, as if they were all about to march off to Ukraine to be used as cannon fodder. Anyway, Piers’ guest was Douglas Murray. “They basically find him guilty of some Victorian attitudes,” he blinked. “Well, surprise, surprise if you’re born in Victorian England you might have some Victorian attitudes.” The trouble with this argument is that Leo Amery, Churchill’s previously mentioned Secretary of State who was so appalled by his views that he compared him to Hitler, was also born in 1873. Hmm.

Regarding their dedication to humourlessness, Churchill would have found his defenders as embarrassing as his detractors. “Gush, however quenching, is always insipid”, he once remarked. 

The critics are wide of the mark too. Ali, Priyamvda Gopal, and the rest make the mistake of casting Churchill in a morality play. If the British public cared about morality, three quarters of the occupants of Number 10 in the last century never would have become Prime Minister. Churchill instead appealed to voters’ courage, endurance, willpower, greed, and desire for glory. He wasn’t judged on his personal morality. He would have been much better at Marxist agitprop than Tariq Ali.

The most damning thing that can be said of Churchill — ignored by defenders and detractors alike — is that he failed on the terms he set for himself. Churchill did not have God, but he did have the British Empire. The goal of his life, and his political creed, was its defence. 

His defence failed. Churchill was born in Rome; he died in Italy. Being the saviour of Western civilisation, as his supporters rightly claim, meant nothing to him unless that the West was built around the Empire. 

Generally, the shortest chapters in any Churchill biography are the last ones. It is not inspiring to read about a stroke-prone Churchill torpidly sailing around the Mediterranean, or dozing off in spooky St James’ clubs, gloomily rambling about nuclear war, convinced of his own defeat, an old man, without any hope for Britain or the world. “I have worked very hard and achieved a great deal” he used to say, “only in the end to achieve nothing”. 

There was no Tennysonian spirit left in him to fight against the tide. He had a near-astral sense that Britain was finished. To watch the dumbo back and forth over his legacy is to suspect that he was right. Churchill’s last coherent words in 1964 were: “I’m so bored of it all.” If only he were alive now. 

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Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 month ago

I don’t think its unfair, or Leftist, to acknowledge that Churchill’s career did indeed involve many misjudgements and failures: Gallipoli, the return to the Gold Standard, and the Italian front to name three which immediately come to mind. He got one big thing right: the need to defeat Hitler – and he had the character to lead the nation in achieving that. That is why he is rightly estimated to be a great man.

harry storm
harry storm
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

That’s pretty much it in a nutshell. Understanding the need to defeat Hitler and leading his country — and its allies — in achieving that trumps by far his personal failures and foibles. Sure he was racist; those pasty Oxford Union Society students surely were non-racist. Tariq Ali might have preferred they led the country in the 1930s, but then, he’s a leftie clown.

Joseph Clemmow
Joseph Clemmow
1 month ago

Tariq Ali is a fossilised soixante-huitard who’s politics ceased to be relevant since the early 70s.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago

I wouldn’t write off the British Empire so quickly Will. Churchill’s imagined Union of the English Speaking People’s seems destined to be the last man standing against declining Russian and Chinese autocracies and a rudderless and weak European Union.

Peter Steven
Peter Steven
1 month ago

Andrew Roberts did a reasonable job of taking Tarig Ali’s arguments to pieces in The Spectator.

michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 month ago

“Well, surprise, surprise if you’re born in Victorian England you might have some Victorian attitudes.” The trouble with this argument is that Leo Amery, Churchill’s previously mentioned Secretary of State who was so appalled by his views that he compared him to Hitler, was also born in 1873. Hmm.
Hmm indeed. So what does this tell us? That Victorian English culture – rather than being monolithic – was a compendium of shifting knowledge, beliefs and attitudes? That Amery held some attitudes that were diametrically opposed to Churchill’s? That both men were products of their time? etc etc.

jon mitchell
jon mitchell
1 month ago

Andrew Roberts and Simon Heffer have both both successfully eviscerated the shoddy half witted bilge produced by this antidiluvian leftover!

harry storm
harry storm
1 month ago
Reply to  jon mitchell

Easy to say. Might as well have said “Hitler, Schmitler.”

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago

An excellent essay.Thank you.
For all his disadvantages, this barely 5’6” Harrovian pygmy, with a fairly low IQ, did magnificent service for this country, even if it meant the loss of Empire.
In fact the Empire was already in terminal decline as a result of the Pyrrhic victory of 1914-18.
One oft forgotten fact is that with his fall from office* because of the Dardanelles fiasco, he immediately headed to the Western Front and assumed command of an Infantry Battalion.
How many contemporary politicians would have the courage to do that?

(* Unfairly it must be said.)

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

He certainly did not have a low IQ.

Matt M
Matt M
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

If he had a low IQ then I am ******!

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

No attempt to get into Oxbridge*, and failed the Army entrance exam three times, finally joining that nadir of the service, “ the people’s Cavalry”?

(* Despite the colossal nepotism that could have been wielded by the Marlborough family.)

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Have you read anything he wrote? Not attempting to get in to Oxbridge is a sign of high IQ.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

You’ve read his account of the Harrow Entrance Exam?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Have you read his books? Your reliance on IQ as a measure of intelligence is rather quaint and frankly neanderthal.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Shall we say academically challenged then, to be thoroughly ‘modern’?

harry storm
harry storm
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

An academically challenged individual could not have written the brilliant History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

Richard Parker
Richard Parker
1 month ago
Reply to  harry storm

Amen to that.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I have no idea why he failed the Army exam., which I would not think difficult. Perhaps there was a reason significant at the time, or his answers were unorthodox, but surely there is ample evidence that he was above average in intelligence.
(It would be interesting to see his exam. papers.)

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago
Reply to  Colin Elliott

Not by his own very frank admission.

JR Stoker
JR Stoker
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Gross heightism. Get thee gone

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago
Reply to  JR Stoker

When captured by the Boers he claimed he was 5’9”!

Adrian Maxwell
Adrian Maxwell
1 month ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Did he not have a lucrative sideline at Harrow knocking out well marked essays for lesser souls. Are you using your own system to assess IQ? It sounds like lazy writing.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 month ago
Reply to  Adrian Maxwell

Even he admits that he was fortunate to get into somewhere as mediocre as Harrow.

Last edited 1 month ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Martin Layfield
Martin Layfield
1 month ago

Regarding Churchill failing in his own terms : it’s been years since I read it, but wasn’t that essentially John Charmley’s argument in his bio of Churchill? Britain was thankfully on the winning side of the war but it ended the war basically broke, it’s empire on borrowed time, subordinate to America, Communism hegemonic in half of Europe, and Labour had defeated Churchill in a landslide.

Stephen Follows
Stephen Follows
1 month ago

Labour had defeated Churchill in a landslide’

The greatest act of ingratitude in history, as I have seen it described.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
1 month ago

My father always told me that all the servicemen (of which he was one) voted Labour because they promised demobilisation, whereas it was suspected that Churchill wanted to maintain the forces at their wartime strength for the next war against Soviet Russia. Oddly I’ve never seen this point being made in the history books.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
1 month ago
Reply to  Jonathan Nash

My father was an officer in the middle east, and told me that in 1945, the Education Corps (a) gave numerous lectures extolling Labour, and then (b) organised the ballot. He was bitter decades later, especially because such people had managed to avoid danger during the war, and because he didn’t like being deprived of such an important vote.
I have only once seen any other reference to this, which was by Simon Heffer, who said it was a myth. Well, my apolitical father thought it no myth, so neither do I.
Both my mother and father thought Churchill of great importance in 1940, because he miraculously came to the forefront, replaced the previous floundering (resonant with today), and expressed fluently exactly what everyone was feeling. Morale soared.

Last edited 1 month ago by Colin Elliott
michael stanwick
michael stanwick
1 month ago

Churchill was a bounder, a serial failure, terrible at small talk, deluded, depressive, drunken, deficient in judgement, and systematically racist enough to be compared by his Secretary of State for India to Adolf Hitler
But he had a marvellous singing voice” came my retort.
Anyway, to continue this line of character description, perhaps a more apropos comparator of racist attitudes would be Karl Marx, IIRC.

Last edited 1 month ago by michael stanwick
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

How anyone can write about Churchill without mentioning his overwhelming claim to greatness is beyond me, which show many of these commentators to be complete moral pygmies. Churchill was the right man at the right time and the right place in May 1940 who prevented us becoming a Nazi puppet state! It happened to France, and it could easily have happened here. And then, decades or more of Nazi domination of Europe, no US intervention whatever might have happened vis a vis Japan. The Soviet Union would have either been a Nazi ally or an uneasy enemy, either way Europe would have been under totalitarian domination. So then, forget any discussion of black rights, gay rights, Brexit (we would have been in an enforced German economic union etc etc).

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
1 month ago

Maybe Will’s just mad because Douglas doesn’t want to date him.

David McDowell
David McDowell
1 month ago

Douglas has eyes only for Chris Williamson

Samantha Sharp
Samantha Sharp
1 month ago

A lovely short article, full of warmth and humour. Thank you.

stefan filipkiewicz
stefan filipkiewicz
1 month ago

Intelligence: he did of course win the Nobel prize for literature (1953).
Not normally awarded to dumbos.

jon mitchell
jon mitchell
1 month ago

Churchill was born in 1874!

R Wright
R Wright
1 month ago

I don’t read books on British history by former colonials with an axe to grind.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 month ago

Thank goodness for this kind of thing, and good on Unherd for producing it. I only wish it were ten times longer.
Piers Morgan and Douglas Murray indeed.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
1 month ago

Jeez this wandering diatribe challenging the different sides also fails somewhat in its objective to add to the debate about Churchill.
Is this just click bait?

aurelio2
aurelio2
1 month ago

“Churchill was born in Rome”. Is this a metaphor or just a mistake?

Pueblo Southwest
Pueblo Southwest
1 month ago

Those of us with a background, by education and/or avocation, in history are quite aware that most of those having an effect in a significant manner were not always correct in their judgements. What matters is that they prescient about the long view and took actions to influence what they believed were necessary corrections. By that measure, Churchill is most certainly a positive mover. By contrast, Wellesley, though successful on the battlefield, can not be said to be more than an average politician and statesman. Few have seen the achievement of their efforts completed in their lifetimes but most of the principled ones have seen further than their own time.